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.

July 18, 2010 Vilar do Barrio to Xunqueria de Ambia

Yesterday I had Wi-Fi so was really glad to be able to Gail my updates. Today, no such luck. I wrote my iPhone emails to Gail at the albergue in the little farm town of Xunquiera de Ambia. There were not many services there, but at least there were some bars and restaurants and the huge church in this cute little town.

Before dinner last night in Vilar do Barrio I stocked up on fruit, water, and cheese for the next day’s walk. On the recommendation of Manuel, son of the owner at the casa rural where I stayed, I had eaten dinner at a tiny restaurant without even a sign outside. The owner/cook/waitress was a 70ish year old woman who made a very nice enselada mixta and a big bowl of caldo galego, my first time trying this Galician classic soup. It’s made simply of potatoes, greens from a peculiar Galician plant, and various spices. Simple but tasty. She was disappointed I didn’t eat the entire bowl, but I was just too full. For that plus bread and wine she wanted to charge me 8€, but I insisted on 10.

After waking from a good sleep I packed and headed out the door for a short day’s walk. I had debated pressing on to Ourense, but given it is Sunday I decided a shorter day and potential church mass would be best.

The day alternated between sunny farm roads and shady pathways, punctuated by sleepy towns. Sheep in the meadows talked loudly to each other while their shepherd looked on. Cows, dogs and cats walked the roads, the dogs and cats, unlike the cows, being nice enough to use private toilets. Cow droppings are one of the charms of Galicia that it takes the most time to adjust to.

Just after I set out I was passed by a group of seven Spanish boys of 15-20ish with small backpacks. After a bit I passed them while they stopped to talk, rest, and smoke. After a time they passed me again, and I caught up again during their break. We all arrived at the Xunqueira albergue at the same time, 11:00 — they the hare and I the ancient sea turtle.

Although the albergue was not supposed to open until 12:30 the hospitalera of this modern and attractive albergue allowed me to leave my backpack and head to the 12th c. church for mass.

The church is a gem of Romanesque architecture, dark but simple and beautiful. Filling the walls are several ornately carved reredos, including two with mi hermano Santiago. There’s also a balcony organ that, according to the secretary who gave me my sello, is 300 years old.

I enjoyed the service, but also had one of those church moments that will certainly make it into a sermon. I sat down in a pew, thirty minutes early for the mass, one of six people among the 40-odd pews. A thirty- something woman came in and, among all the available seats chose to sit in my pew, about three feet to my left. In a few minutes another much older woman came in and sat to my right, then another woman joined our merry group between me and the woman on my left. I counted perhaps 20 people in church now, with 20% of us in one pew and ten minutes left until the service was to begin. Clearly I had sat in “their” pew, but rather than get up and move to another pew I decided to become one of “them.” We worshiped, shared the sacrament, and mumbled our ancient prayers together (in two languages). I smelled their perfume, my first in a week. I halfway expected (and hoped for) a lunch invitation, but suspect they had caught a whiff of Eau de Pelerin (no shower yet after 14 km in the hot sun) and left in dismay.

Met Andre, a québécois gentleman, on the return from church. He’s walked all the French camino routes over the years and once all the way to Santiago. Like most long distance pilgrims on the VDLP he’s now slowing down to time his arrival for July 24 in Santiago.

Shower followed by update writing. Laundry later. Cervesa at the nearest restaurant next. Hot day outside. Windows in the albergue closed to keep out the hot air. A kissy young couple from Seville who’d been at Lubian and who witnessed my defeat at Campobecerros, are taking their siestas on (blessedly) two bunks on the other side of the room. At 14:45 I left to explore the town, find dinner, and prep for tomorrow’s walk into Ourense. Dinner was a joyous affair with Andre and many other pilgrims in a restaurant a few hundred yards below the albergue.

July 17, 2010 As Eiras to Vilar do Barrio

Last night in the distance I’d heard the barking of wild dogs as I fell asleep and then dreamt about confrontations with hungry canines as I lay on my picnic table. Rather than being eaten by wild dogs I’d slept soundly through the evening and woke up first at 4:45, then snoozed until 6:30. It seemed incredibly cold and I dressed in extra layers, then headed down the hill at 07:00 toward Lasa, the place I’d hoped to reach last night. The 6.5 km were all on pavement and I made it there by a little after 09:00.

Lots of teenaged pilgrims with tiny backpacks were leaving town at this cushy hour. I realized then it was Saturday, one week before Santiago Day and I was seeing the first of the fiesta crowds. I’d see these teens and their supply van a few times over the next days.

After a cafe con leche I began looking for bottled water and food for the day’s journey. A lesson from the Via de la Plata: stock up the night before because when you wake up everything will be closed. Sure enough the tienda was closed (no water or actual food), but a panaderia was open. They gave me tap water and sold me two chocolate covered, cream filled croissants. These would be my provisions for the 423 meter/8 km climb that awaited me — the climb the guidebook says is hardest of the Via de la Plata.

I walked through two tiny towns, covering 6.7 kms of fairly flat ground, then began the ascent at Tamicelas. Of course neither town had stores of any kind.

Immediately I felt the effects of yesterday’s 41 kms. Every step was a slog, with my feet tired and sore and the morning mist having been replaced by a blazing sun. The climb was relentless and sweaty and the morning’s croissant was a brick in my stomach. I arrived at the town of Albergueria, famous on the Via de la Plat for its pilgrim bar and my best hope for a real lunch today, only to find it closed. A nice man assured me in Galego that the owner would be back in a half hour. An hour and a half later still no owner. Fortunately, though, the grocery truck (tienda on wheels) arrived, allowing me a lunch of nectarines and cheese. One of the bar’s customs is to hang a scallop shell from the ceiling with the name of each pilgrim who stops there. I was also hoping for a sello for my credentiale with the bar’s name. No luck. Armed with carbs and protein but no memorial shell or sello I set off at 14:30 for the day’s final walk — 7.3 kms downhill to Vilar do Barrio.

The wait at the bar had given me a chance to rest my feet and even catch a short snooze on the bench across the street from the bar. This rest allowed me to push through this challenging phase without a pause, and I arrived at Vilar do Barrio at 17:00. My first stop was the albergue, which I was told was full because of the arrival of a busload of young pilgrims with small backpacks. The kind hospitalera set me up in a casa rural for 40E that offered all the comforts of home (except for Gail, our dog, and our cat). Manuel, son of the owner, did my laundry smelly and wet laundry (no charge). I wrote on my iPhone to Gail as I waited for a bar of soap and a shower. No answer from Manuel or his mom yet on a bar of soap, but I did get a restaurant suggestion and I’ll head there at the traditional Spanish dinner hour of 21:00.

My big walk yesterday put me 1.5 days ahead of plan. I’ll spend the extra 1/2 day tomorrow by walking only the 13.5 kms to Xunqueira de Ambia. I look forward to seeing the 12th century monastery there. With my extra day I will probably take a rest day at Ourense, but may instead get to Santiago a day early.

Here are distances so far:

  • July 14 – Puebla de Sanabria to Lubian. 29.5 kms
  • July 15 – Lubian to Vilavella. 12 kms.
  • July 16 – Vilavella to As Eiras. 41.1 kms.
  • July 17 – As Eiras to Vilar do Barrio. 25.1 kms

Total distance 107.7 kms (27kms per day)