NOTE to readers/followers: This post recalls the last three days of my long walk on the Camino Portugues (Sep. 21-23) but it’s being written more than two weeks later from the comfort of my home back in Boise, Idaho
Facebook has a feature that reminds us of events in our lives that happened on this day in past years. This morning (Oct. 8th) I was reminded of a fun dinner in Triacastela, on the Camino Frances, exactly two years ago. My post in 2015 included a photo collage of three friends and me eating dinner in that small town’s nicest restaurant. Two of us – Rhys and Jay – are loving the Galician staple of Pulpo (octopus) while the other two of us – Maria and I – are visibly gagging at the thought and sight of civilized people eating these chunks of sucker-laden tentacles. I remember that evening as being memorable for the close friendship that the four of us had formed, despite our vast age gap and different culinary preferences, after several weeks of frequent crossing of paths.
I mention this here because this memory – actually these friendships from two years ago on the Camino Frances – is in such stark contrast to what I’m experiencing this year on the Camino Portugues. Starting in Lisbon more than three weeks earlier, I crossed paths with virtually no one at first, and only several days along the way did I connect with the two people who would be my only memorable friends this year, Mary and Paul from the Isle of Jersey. Despite our connection, we were on different schedules and our paces didn’t match up, so we walked together only briefly and our occasional meetings were more by chance than planning. We said our last good-byes two days before Porto.
Being alone so much of the way had sealed a personal commitment that I’d keep it this way. It’s probably a good thing since, by the time I see more people after Porto, they’d already formed their little cliques, in fact most appeared to have started as groups of friends or family. So, despite running into a crowd of pilgrims leaving Pontevedra in the morning, I still feel very much alone and pace myself in such a way that I can avoid the masses as soon as possible. This means kicking it into a higher gear to outrun the others, and when I’ve created some space around me I can fall back to a more regular pace… no chatter, no one dragging their poles along the rocks, or other annoyances. I’m really not anti-social, but as I said, I’m conditioned to this style by now. It’s not a particularly noteworthy walk, but I’ll take this opportunity to point out a frequent sight all along the way here in Galicia. It’s a “horreo,” a granary built on stone pillars, often used to store seed corn or other grains and keep them elevated to protect them from rain and rodents. Each horreo is unique in style, but they stand alongside fields or in the walled-in yards of homes, and they’re practically a trademark of this region.
After a relatively short day of walking – little more than 20 km (13 miles) – the way leads into the spa town of Caldas de Reis. A “calda” is a hot spring, and “de Reis” obviously refers to kings, and indeed, one of Spain’s long-ago kings was born here. The hot springs were an attraction for the Romans who settled here on a site that had previously been a Celtic village (Galicians are Celts related to the Celts in the British isles). It’s a very compact but pretty town, and had I wanted a massage or a foot bath, this would have been the place to get them. What I really want, though, is a haircut and trim of my shaggy beard, so I find a “pelequeria” that could fit me in on a late afternoon. Nothing says faith more than sitting in a chair and letting a person with scissors work on you when you’re incapable of really communicating your wishes to them.
Cleaned up as I am now, the next day is an even shorter walk to an even smaller town, Padron, and from there, the last stage will take me into Santiago. After a leisurely breakfast in Caldas, I leave town and am either ahead or behind the crowd as I see virtually no one for quite a while. Had I not kept seeing the yellow arrows pointing my way, I might’ve concluded that I was on the wrong path again. It’s mostly a quiet, natural pathway and, while not remarkable, I know it’ll be the last of such stretches of Camino as the walk toward and into Santiago, the next day, will be much busier and less scenic. So I enjoy this day for what it is, and then it ends, shortly after crossing the second of two small rivers, by walking alongside an enclosed market building leading toward an promenade – similar to Ponte de Lima five days earlier – lined on both sides by massive old plane trees. This is the point where I pull out my phone and turn it on to find my reserved lodging, and I see it’s a private albergue close to the far end of this “Paseo de Espolon.” I’m there within just a few minutes of stroll under this canopy of trees, and check in at the bar downstairs, with the sleeping quarters above it. The albergue offers modern, clean cubbies for each pilgrim to sleep in, and as I’m among the first arrivals I get cubby #1.
I’ve got plenty of time to settle in and freshen up. There’s no longer a need to do laundry, as tomorrow ends the walk and then I can catch up on this chore in a more leisurely manner in Santiago. But I do have another chore; I want to buy the material – cardboard and tape – to construct a box into which I can put my hiking poles and Leatherman knife for check-in at the airport for the flight home three days later. The “Correo” (post office) is across the street from the albergue and they’re still open, so I go in to get my supplies. I cut the cardboard into the appropriately sized pieces and fold them so that I can attach them to my pack the next day, and after that I’ll assemble the box in Santiago. There’s a reason I’m telling you this, so hold on. After this little distraction, I go out to explore the town and find a “pastilleria” for an afternoon treat with Cafe con Leche. I sit outside and fall into conversation with a couple at the next table. They’re Dutch and their names are Mary and Paul, and they had met my friends, Mary and Paul, several days earlier. Small world after all. We chat for quite a while – they started in Porto, of course, as all smart pilgrims did, and, like me, they had done the Camino Frances several years earlier. Eventually, we separate, and I go back to my cubby to read and take a nap.
I wake up as it’s nearing dinner time, and I seem to be alone in the 20-person albergue, so I simply find a place nearby where I have a simple dinner while watching a “Futbol” game on an ever-present TV. Then one more late evening stroll through this very compact maze of a town (yes, I need to consult my maps app to find my way back) and I’m tucked into bed by 9:30. Each cubby has a curtain, and judging from the closed curtains all around me I may have been the last one out and the last one back in. But it’s a Friday night, and by now you may recall that towns seem to be very lively on this night of the week. Unlike the other Friday night towns, though, Padron isn’t holding a festival, yet every mother and father must’ve sent their kids out to the Paseo near our resting place and told them to make as much noise as you possibly can, and don’t come home before midnight. Or so it seems, as those kids – whatever they were doing – did, in fact, yell and scream until very late that night. In any case, I don’t sleep well, or long.
By 6:30am, I’m up before any other lights come on or curtains are opened, and I quietly move my stuff to a common area near the bathroom and prepare for the last day of walking. I’m down in the bar fifteen minutes later for the usual breakfast, and by 7am I step out the door with my headlamp on as I’ll have about an hour or so of walking through darkness. Somewhere along this early stretch I miss a turn, but, checking my map, it confirms that I’m walking parallel to the Camino path, only along a highway rather than a quiet path. Being early and dark, it isn’t very busy yet, and I know that eventually the walking path will intersect with the highway at a church called “A Esclavitude.” Then I can rejoin the pathway. Everything about my pack is as it had been for the prior 22 days, except one thing… the folded-up cardboard box that I have strapped to the outside, intended to eventually hold my poles and knife as airline baggage. It’s astounding, as soon as I rejoin the path and connect with a handful of other early pilgrims, I start getting questions about why I have cardboard strapped to my pack. Not once, but I must’ve been asked four or five times. It’s apparently a conversation starter, and had I known that – if I had wanted to be more social – I would’ve strapped a piece of cardboard to my pack two weeks earlier, not on the very last day. And so I have more brief conversations, if only to explain my intent, than I’ve had on any prior day on this long walk.
As mentioned before, I know that this day’s walk wouldn’t be particularly scenic as, like any approach to a larger city, it involves highway approaches, overpasses, underpasses, suburbs and commercial zones, and so it is. Frankly it’s also more hilly than I had anticipated though I know that Santiago sits a couple hundred meters higher than where I’d started the day. As I’m definitely entering the city now – marked by urban hubbub on a busy Saturday noon- I’m asked once again about my cardboard. It’s a very friendly Dutchman – he lives in Lisbon – and his Australian girlfriend. They met on the Camino last year, and now she came back to spend some time with him. They’re not real pilgrims this time, just two friends who enjoy hiking, and they started just three days ago, But we fall into a pleasant conversation, and since he walks this way regularly, he knows all the turns of the street. Ironically, other than the two Mary and Paul combinations, the British and the Dutch, I have my most enjoyable human interaction right here during the final mile and final 20 minutes of this 400 mile, 23 day long walk. As we approach the side of the Cathedral of Santiago, Hank indicates that he’s eager to have lunch, but I persuade him to take my photo, and then he and Viv are off. I’m eager to get into what know will be a long line at the Compostela office where I’ll present my “Credenciales,” my passport containing about 50 stamps to mark the journey I’ve taken since picking up this document at the “Se,” the Cathedral of Lisbon. Indeed, I wait 90 minutes in a snaking line of weary pilgrims who’ve arrived from multiple directions before I receive the coveted “Compostela” and certificate of distance. In line I meet and chat with a young German couple who have just finished a 40 day long walk on a combination of two Camino paths, the Norte and the Primitivo. He recently finished medical school and will now start his residency in psychiatry, and she’s still in university studying to be a middle school teacher. As each of us is called forward to one of several stations, we wish each other good luck. They’re beginning their careers and I’ve ended mine, but we each shared something in common, a long walk full of challenges and experiences. Even someone who walked alone, still has something in common with all of these pilgrims, including those who came before and those who will come later. It’s what ties us all together.