Oops, I Think I Fell Into a “Mad Men” Set

Day Nine: Comillas to Colombres —I saw the motel in the distance and couldn’t quite reconcile it with its setting. In ancient Spain where everything has a medieval or Baroque patina, here was a motel — yes, a motor hotel — right off the set of Mad Men. I couldn’t imagine what the rooms might be like (maybe springy beds and noisy air conditioners?), but after 32 km of walking I was not about to be picky.

Today’s walking began early, the three Italians with whom I was sharing a room were awake and packing their bags at 5:30. They politely kept the lights off until 6:00, which was when I’d told them they could awaken me. Together we finished readying our things and somehow I headed out the door a few minutes before them.

I wound my way down the streets of Comillas to the main highway where yesterday I’d seen the yellow arrow way markers and headed out the red, paved pedestrian walkway that climbed along the highway out of town. After 20 minutes or so the Italians passed me, along with a friendly Spaniel-ish dog who had just adopted them.

After a bit the pedestrian walkway petered out and we were walking along the road again (insert frowning emoticon here). After a bridge over the Rio Rabia our smaller road veered off to the left and climbed above the main highway, giving vistas of the valley which fell out to our right into a small ocean bay. The road continued up through farms then rejoined the main road after a few kilometers of ups and downs. At the final uphill I passed the five Spanish women from yesterday as they turned off to a rest area to recover from the steep climb. This was to be just the first of many steep climbs today.

The road then meandered through an immaculate but empty golf course. Near the clubhouse was a tiny, ancient chapel with a tree growing out of its bell tower. Not something you see every day, even among the 200-800 year old churches of Spain.

From here the road descended, losing all the elevation we’d gained, and dramatic views were visible of San Vicente de la Barquera and its bridges, castles and churches. My Italian friends were just ahead and they continued on while I turned right so I could find breakfast. At a little cafe overlooking the quiet harbor I enjoyed a coffee and croissant as the Spanish women passed by with a wave and then settled into their own breakfast at an adjacent cafe.

Armed with a few calories I headed back to the camino trail, which immediately climbed steeply through the streets of San Vicente. The road dropped down, then climbed even more steeply through a eucalyptus forest. After a descent followed by a roadside walk that included a deserted and overgrown but somehow picturesque pedestrian tunnel I crossed a bridge and began yet another ascent, this one on a steep, green path through the forest.

My French guidebook describes the following descent as “a little acrobatic” and sure enough, for the first time in 2300 km of camino walking I actually slipped and fell. My right boot lost traction on a steep gravel slope and slipped ahead about two feet, leaving me in a lunge-like position with my left knee on the ground. Somehow i managed to keep my balance and I wasn’t hurt much, but I wouldn’t be surprised if my hip or back are sore in the morning.

The path soon joined an asphalt road which ran next to a gravel quarry, its machinery loudly grinding while big diesel trucks noisily drove in and out of its gate.

I followed the road into Unquera and walked along its pedestrian walkway until it was blocked off then headed onto the sidewalk of its main street to the concrete bridge out of town. I couldn’t believe my eyes when the camino signs pointed to yet another enormous climb, this one easily 300 meters on flagstone pavers at perhaps an 8-10% grade.

By now it was 2:00 and the sun was at its hottest for the day. Near the top of the climb was a tiny camino chapel (wish I’d taken a photo), then the trail stopped and suddenly I was at the albergue of Colombres, my intended goal for the day. There was no sign to note that the camino had now left Cantabria and was in the Spanish “autonomous state” of Asturias.

The albergue was full of children with no room left for pilgrims, so with the Italians, who were just ahead of me, I hunted for lodging. After 10 minutes with no hotel in sight they headed left while I headed right and somehow I ended up alone out at the main highway, approaching a motel right out of Mad Men.

As I came around to its front door, very hot and tired after many climbs and descents in the sun, the first thing I noticed was that the large parking lot was deserted. Not a good sign. I noted patio furniture on the terrace, a good sign, but weeds growing through cracks in the concrete, another bad sign. I passed the shuttered restaurant and cafeteria to find a vast lobby with a desk clerk speaking loudly on the telephone while fluorescent lights flickered and buzzed overhead. She noticed me right away, but continued answering the caller’s highly detailed questions (“What is included in the dinner?” “What time is breakfast?”). This gave me a chance to inspect the vintage furniture, to peruse a 2008 edition of Perro magazine (all about schnauzers), to admire the empty expanse of the vacant sunroom, to realize that I was probably going to be the only guest in the entire 60-70 room hotel tonight and to theorize that the hotel was built in 1959 for a convention of American advertising agency execs and hadn’t changed since then.

Finally when she was free I learned from the desk clerk that the cost of the single room was only 30€ including breakfast and that one of her friends was happy to do my laundry (for an as yet to be determined price). When I arrived at my room I marveled at the vintage 1950’s fixtures in the bathroom (blue toilet and sink, yellow tile). To my delight I soon learned that showers were just as good fifty years ago as they are today.

I headed out in the late afternoon to catch a bite at a roadside restaurant (the hotel’s restaurant doesn’t open until 8:00) and was delighted to run into Amelia, Julien and their Danish friend whom I’d met way back at Guemes. They were intrigued at the thought of sleeping in a Mad Men motel and we agreed to meet at 8:00 in the restaurant for a dinner of…..fish sticks and canned vegetables maybe?

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Only 280 Miles of Walking Left

Day 8: Santillana del Mar to Comillas — The directional signs to leave Santillana this morning were non-existent, leading us to speculate that the town was trying so hard to be authentically medieval that painted yellow arrows, the key to pilgrim directions, were forbidden. How else to explain that two walks up and down the village’s streets this morning did not reveal the way out of town?

Last night I’d had a nice dinner with John of Calgary, then had headed straight to bed, somehow finding sleep amidst the giggling of my five female Spanish roommates. After their quiet departure at 5:30 am I couldn’t get back to sleep, so I gathered my things and headed out the big, black, steel albergue gate.

Here I joined two Italianos and a Maltese pilgrim as we walked up and down the street, hoping for a hint of the way out of town. Finally we all headed out the car road, in spite of the yellow “X” (meaning it was not the pilgrim route) and walked along the highway first to Orena, then to Caborredondo. The others chose to stay on the highway to Novales while I found the official pilgrim trail and its very welcome yellow arrows.

Before Cobreces I returned early to the highway to find breakfast and waved to the Italian/Maltese contingent who somehow I’d beaten to this point. I then missed the pilgrim trail and stayed on the highway most of the way to the pretty town of La Iglesia. From here the camino wound on small roads through the tiny villages of Pando and Concha, then finally climbed a rise and revealed Comillas in the distance.

I crossed the bridge into town, then walked up to the winding streets at the heart of this medieval town. After a few tries at finding the albergue I finally located it and set my pack on a bed to reserve it so I could head out for some lunch in the shade.

A sign outside the albergue described an unsettling fact: Santiago de Compostela is still 456 km (280ish miles) away. I’ve managed about 160 km +/- in the last 8 days, though I’m actually two days ahead of schedule. Perhaps it’s the early arrival here, though, that’s made me feel I’m not maintaining a quick enough pace. But Comillas holds some interesting sightseeing treats, so it would be a shame to rush along and miss them.

I wrote emails at a cafe in the plaza and planned my assault on the main landmarks of this touristic, medieval seaside village. Spanish and German tourists sparsely inhabited the square and there was a relaxed feel to this town that records its beginnings as a Roman mining center over 2000 years ago. I watched from a distance as a few other pilgrims arrived and looked for the albergue, including John of Calgary. I wanted to tell them where it’s at, but shouting across the square or jumping up to run and catch them didn’t seem quite right. Instead I ordered a round of huevos fritos and patatas fritas and decided to make this my final meal of the day.

After awhile I headed back to the albergue where I may have lost my first argument in Spanish. The hospitalera’s boss came by the albergue at 2:30 and discovered pilgrims inside prior to the 4:00 opening. She was offended and loudly complained although she wasn’t about to throw anyone out. I tried to explain to her that in 2200 km of caminos I found it customary for pilgrims to enter an unlocked albergue and choose their bed. She wasn’t satisfied to hear that but I was pleased to engage in my first, albeit unsuccessful argument en Espanol.

The hospitalera soon arrived and collected our money as per normal. I chatted briefly with the Spanish women from last night then took a tour of the Palacio Sobrellano, a lavish home built by a Catalan noble on one the town’s many hills. A glass or two of wine with John, then off to bed.

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