DAY THIRTY TWO: 9 November 2012 from Pieros to Ruitelan
Most villages along the Camino are tidy little tangled knots of civilisation; a few streets, a church, a bar and then you are out the other side. Cacabelos was a different kettle of fish, for a small town it went on and on and on, a long string of a street with a rather nice and rather tempting exclusive hotel the Moncloa de San Lazaro as the knot in its middle. I resisted temptation and carred on to the end of town and the Las Augustias – the Municipal hostel which had rooms arranged in a semi circle patio around an 18th Century church. A feature that I thought might make it an interesting stop for the night. As it happened I had just missed the season at Las Augustias. Dan, a pilgrim companion I met early on on the way and who was keeping in touch by email assured me when we met again in Santiago that it was a fortunate fate. I always think of Dan as Father Dan even though he left the priesthood many decades ago. He has an air about him that is humble, philosophical, curious, spiritual and not a little irreverant. More priestly than many priests I have encountered in recent times. Dan was on his ninth consecutive Camino Francais. His first was when he was 70. He told me that sleeping at Las Augustias was like sleeping in a tomb.
As dusk turned to night I was loathe to turn from the chained up hostel and go back to town for lodging. A quick check of my guide in the gloaming of the dim street light shows me a hostel at the village of Pieros just 1.7km away. Unfortunately it is uphill along a busy road, although I walk facing the traffic and I am breaking all the rules of night walking in dark clothing. My heart is in my mouth as I cleave to the verge. I remember that Dan had recommended El Serbal y La Luna. There was no kitchen (not that I had yet used a kitchen on the Camino) but there was the option of a vegetarian meal. Now I am an unrepentant meat eater, I love the substance of meat, the chewing and tearing of flesh, the savouring of blood soaked juices. Apologies to my vegetarian readers but although I am partial to vegetables and salad I have a tendency to feel a little flat, deflated and restricted when considering non meat menus so it was a surprise to notice a little lift at the thought of vegetarian food, in fact I think the idea positively propelled me up the road and down Calle de Pozo to meet voluntary hospitalero Ivan from Italy on the doorstep. 30 days of pork in all its guises just might be pushing me over the edge of change!
El Serbal y La Luna turned out to be one of my very favourite spots. An old stone farmhouse it has lovingly been restored by ceramicist Mar. One of the smallest albergues on the route, there is a simplicity to the welcoming reception that seques into a dinning area and unwinds between the bathroom facilitaties (men on the right, ladies on the left) into the bunk room where the vast beds have been hewen out of wood that could still be alive. I reconnect with Co. I can still see and smell the rich lushness of garlic coated roasted red peppers and the smooth wash of the ruby red of Bierzo wine. The air is autum chilled and the sky sparkles in the cool clearness of the air. I am not a smoker or a star gazer so I am surprised to find myself outside smoking a cigarillo and in humbled awe of the canvas of stars. La Via Lactea (The Milky Way).
In the morning there is a slow unwinding into the day, which is one of the gifts of walking off season. With only a few pilgrims on the road, the hospitaleros are more relaxed, happy to chat, not under so much pressure for the day ahead. I head off in my own time into the mist shrouded cornucopia of vinyards on the upward sloping hillside to Villafranca del Bierzo. With limited visibility my other senses are heightened, it feels like I am sinking step by step into the deep smell of the earth mixed with the pungent juices of forgotten swollen bellied grapes. The sun plays with the long skirted mist creating soft focus pictures in my mind. It is a very magical morning. By the time I arrive in Villafranca the mist has cleared. It is a glorious blue sky day which is a relief as I want to take the recommended scenic route rather than the road route which would have been the only sensible option on a wet or cloudy day. Villafranca has the same population as Cacabelos but feels a far more substantial town, robustly characterful. it has a flavour of Glastonbury, a big hippy, a bit magical. It has the happy nature of a town that knows just how pretty its location is, the gateway to the steep climb into Galacia, guarding rugged ancient land, overlooking the confluence of the rios Burbia and the Valcarce. I like Villafranca and it even crosses my mind that I could live here. I have already decided to come back to Albergue De Pieros as a hospitalero so I guess this is the first part of the camino I have really fallen in love with.
The recommended route out of Villafranca is one of three options. It is not the flat route along the valley floor tracking the A6 Autopista and main route into Galicia, neither is it the Dragonte which is described as beautiful and spectacular but remote, arduous and badly waymarked. The Dragonte sounds like a wonderful route to do in early Autumn/late Spring with company and a compass. Route Pradela sounded like a good compromise. I walk out of town and up, and up, and up, and up. Two hours walking up and still I was walking up. It was a stunning day, t-shirt weather. The view across the valley and the A6, to the remote rocky, forests of the Dragonte was stunning. I could see the curve of my upwards walk behind me and the wildness of Galacia ahead. It was an unexpectedly strenuous and rewarding option. Coming to the top of the climb I found myself completely lost in cheery chestnut forests, peopled by wizened nut-coloured chestnut collectors. I wondered if they were little people, faeries, they were visible to me but they were oblivious to me. They seemed to be working on the other side of a veil and I wondered if it was part of their fun to play with the yellow arrow way markings. Normally clear and directional, the arrows here seemed to be arbitrary and pointing in at an angle that suggest one of a number of directions. I was pure luck that I found my way out of the wood onto the tight corkscrew of country road winding its way down to the valley floor. Unfortunately I had not noticed that the guidebook advised allowing an extra hour or two for the steep ascent and descent. The descent was excruciating, not just because it was so steep but because it was taking me down to the relentless tarmacadam of noisy busy road. All the pleasure of the vastness of nature was wiped away by the tight constriction in the dark chill valley floor. There was little to take my mind off my aching feet and legs and much to keep me on the edge of panic having to navigate the fastest stretch of road that I have experienced to date.
I am heading for Ruitelan and the Pequeno Potala – the second hostel in a row with no kitchen and shared dining. I had heard that the people who ran this hostel were lovely but when I saw the humble, purposeful building abutting the street I girded myself for disappointment. In my tiny mind I decided that it certainly wasnt going to be the rich artistic experience of El Serbal y La Luna – an assumption that served to trip me up spectacularly. True the reception area squeezed into the tiny hall, the tight functionality of rooms off the central corridor and the reality of close quarters wasnt helped by the buzz of wet pilgrims, steaming boots and sodding backpacks but there were familar faces; Leona & Zoe who I hadnt seen since Burgos, the ubiqitous Co and Kevin the speedy pilgrim of the day before. Soft edges are beginning to appear. As I settle in and drop beneath the surface noise the soothing music and the underlying Buddhist energy begin to register, the tiny chime for dinner resonantes with my heart and my stomach. And what a feast we are served; Carlos & Luis are mein hosts extraordinaire. They serve an abundance of food with a flourish born of experience and a joy de vivre that can only come from being in the moment. How many meals have they served? How many pilgrims have they met? And still the freshness of new connections. As the meal is cleared away the benefit of a hostel right in the village became apparent – there was a bar just across the road. An usually late curfew of 11pm encouraged myself Co & new companions Kath & Carolyn to repair for just a little more sustenance. We were welcomed by Carlos who had preceeded us with young Kevin. And as they say a great night was had by all!