July 20, 2010 Ourense to Cea

Day Seven began by asking directions at the hotel’s front desk about how to get out of Ourense. The answer was fairly easy — left, then right, then left until the Roman bridge — the follow through was much more difficult. After the tall, masonry bridge and the endless suburbs there was a steep vertical climb up a cobblestone drive for 1000 ft elevation gain. The uphill climb was very tough, mostly because whenever it seemed to be ending it was in reality just taking a break before another steep slope. The first 7.5 kms took over two hours, much slower than normal. Worse, the result was a feeling of exhaustion all day long.

The climb led to a long stretch of vacation chalets, each sitting, it seemed, on 5-10 acre parcels. These are large houses, built of 6’x18″x6″ slabs of rough hewn granite. While the materials should make these houses blend into their context of ancient stone buildings, just the opposite is true. Unlike the ancient homes, these stand out because they are nearly identical, symmetrical, but most of all, they are separated from their neighbors. All of the ancient houses are clustered together– sometimes walls touching while surrounded by miles of farms — for community and protection. Each of the homes has a barking German Shepherd tied in the yard for protection and a satellite dish attached to the house for community. The result was not an unpleasant feeling, just a disconnected one.

After a time the vacation chalets melted into the normal Galician pattern of scattered villages. At one of these villages I took a lunch of cheese omelette in a baguette. The TV was on and I found myself entranced by the Spanish-dubbed version of Minority Report with Tom Cruise. After days of tranquility I was easily lured into the fast pace of this American movie and I had a hard time dragging myself away.

Within a half hour the heavy lunch required a break from walking. So in a grassy spot with shade I laid down for 20 mins with my shoes off to rest. This gave me a chance to watch the trickle of pilgrims who were behind me. In 20 mins only three — a single Spanish woman was walking with the cigar-smoking older Spanish man. The solo Spaniard with the soccer flag still by himself. Each shared a buen camino as they passed.

After an hour I met Ramon from Madrid, a man who carries the party with him wherever he goes. His personality blends the jocular and the pushy. He was clearly frustrated with my Spanish, but clearly still wanted to communicate. At one point he asked me, “do you know what color was Santiago’s white horse?” I knew he was playing with me and I told him it was the same color as George Washington’s white horse. He also told me about some of the people he’d been walking with from A Gudina. A Polish woman who lives in Madrid. A Polish woman who is walking from Lourdes to Fatima to Santiago.

This was all with only 3 kms to go before the albergue in Cea. Once we arrived there after our 22km walk we found our beds in a spacious albergue seemingly created out of stone farm buildings on the outskirts of the village, took our showers, washed our clothes, and at Ramon’s suggestion headed straight to dinner — with Magdalena, the Polish pilgrim.

It was a lively and delicious dinner, with Ramon the life of the fiesta. Rumor told us that the town’s free pool was open. Several pilgrims planned to swim, and I considered joining them.

Otherwise it was a quiet day here on the Via de la Plata, unless you include the fact that there are now at least 5 times the number of pilgrims as before. The reason is that we are within the 100 kilometer minimum to receive a pilgrim compostela, the certificate of completion from the Santiago cathedral. I’m not too concerned to be in a crowd of pilgrims — I’d expected it. But I am secretly pleased that I’m the only American among this increasingly international band of pilgrims.

July 19, 2010 Xunqueira de Ambia to Ourense

In My Dinner with Andre last night we had a tender discussion about angels and saints. He told me about his family and divorce and the 1000s of kilometers he’s walked on caminos. Afterwards it was off to the albergue for a good sleep.

As usual in albergue living people start to stir and head out at the ridiculous hour of 05:00. Dawn didn’t come until 07:00, so clearly their reason is to get a jump on albergue beds in the next town. That makes me so sad that beds become a competition. I prefer to begin my walk sometime soon after dawn and trust to the camino to provide a bed at day’s end.

At 06:30 I gave up trying to sleep and was next to last out of the albergue. Today’s walk to Ourense, largest town in my camino, had three main stages — a) tiny bedroom villages, b) industrial zones, c) dense urban areas leading to the old city.

I walked through the tiny bedroom villages with Kjell and Oddbjorge of Norway. Kjell’s English is quite good and he told me the story of how his 1998 camino changed his life. After the camino he came home, simplified his lifestyle, and retired so he’d have more time to volunteer at church. Then he complained bitterly about the Norwegian government forcing the Norwegian Lutheran church to accept homosexual clergy.

Kjell and Oddbjorg walked slowly, so I walked mostly alone through the industrial zone. Here I nearly flipped my first bird (yes, nearly) when a driver missed me by inches from behind as he passed a truck on a narrow road. I jumped as his car whizzed by just inches away.

As I started into the urban section I caught up with the kissy Spaniards and their friend, who was hobbling now with an injury. I tried to help them find the albergue, but I wasn’t that committed given I had my heart set on a cheap hotel somewhere in the center city.

In the urban areas the yellow arrows always seem to disappear, so I had to ask directions several times to get to the Plaza Mayor. I finally found it then was about to sit down for the day’s first beer when I was stopped by a camera crew. A man in a rainbow tank top asked me if I’d be interviewed. I told him I didn’t speak Spanish that well, so he did the first part of the interview in English. He asked me how I liked Ourense (me lo gusta) and where I was from. I told him and also volunteered that I’d just walked 22kms and was very tired and was looking for a hotel. He asked me how many stars, one, two, or three? I told him 2-3 and, off camera now, he sent me to a hotel about a block off the Plaza Mayor.

I checked in, went across the street for a great enselada mixta, then sat to type my daily note to Gail on my iPhone and strategize about laundry (do it now) and dinner (do it after the blazing sun goes down). Ourense has a reputation as the hottest town in Galicia, and today’s temps — likely 95 to 100F — were confirmation.

I spent some time at the cathedral — a beautiful church. And I debated with myself about a change in my plan to stay at the hotel I’d reserved given my quicker pace. I could pretty easily get to Santiago on the 23rd at my current rate, but my hotel reservation isn’t until the 25th. I decided to ask Gail’s help online to try to find an available Santiago hotel for the 23/24 then head to Finisterre on 25/26. I left the decision open, though, as I knew a lot could change and I had laundry to do.