El Camino Day 23 & 24 -Empty Rooms and Sky Water

Valverde de la Virgen ➡ Villares de Orbigo ➡ El Ganso

I snuggled closer to Royce in the VERY warm albergue. I’d swear someone had put the heating on, it was like sleeping a furnace. I felt hot and sticky as I rolled over to turn off my alarm. The double mattress didn’t creak. That was a nice change. We were up early today because we had heard talk of a large Decathalon just outside of Leon that Google maps oddly said was open at 6am. We were looking for Ponchos to keep our packs drier in the insistent rain. This morning’s walk was along the highway, so we might as well get that out of the way in the dark, and hope it stayed dry till then. Our Decathalon turned out to be the Decathlon Depo store for this region of Spain. Before leaving the UK we had decided we didn’t need ponchos and didn’t buy the six pound ones from Mountain Warehouse. Now here out in the weather I was deeply regretting that decision. My jacket and lack of wet weather pants was not sufficient. I wrapped our clothes and electronics up in plastic bags in our packs, but I was still in favour of a poncho.

We stopped at a truck stop for coffee and breakfast cake. The tv in the corner flashed scenes from rioting in Barcelona. I was glad this area of Spain was more settled. There had been clear unrest in the grafitti present in the Basque region, but here in Castilla Y Leon seemed a lot less volatile. We headed out with another stamp to see us on our way. More highway walking. Dan caught up with us at the next town as I needed to stop and rest my joints. He was searching for an albergue that apparently had hammocks! Royce and I kept walking when Dan turned off to find it a couple of hours later. The path was flat and damp with rain from the day before; we passed more arable fields, less and less fields had been harvested in this part of Spain. Fields of maize flanked us as we walked toward the next town, trying again to outrun the weather.

We arrived at Villares de Orbigo and checked in; the albergue was almost empty. At the 18th of October, it was nearly the end of the season. Most albergues close between October 31st and March 1st. There was only a handful of other pilgrims in this albergue and we got an entire dorm room to ourselves! Twenty beds in the room were all empty save for the two we plonked our things onto. There was a peaceful quiet from the empty building to the sleepy town. The peace was startling and welcome. The albergue had a small square courtyard ringed by a two story wooden building. The dorms lay on the top level along with the showers and in a small corner on the balcony was a couch where I curled up after the days walk to write.

A stout Belgium woman owned the Albergue. She insisted we stay and have dinner; she was cooking for all the pilgrims. We had a packet of soup that we had been planning to use. It would wait. We added our few vegetables to the meal and helped to prepare it. Dinner was Pumpkin Soup and Chicken and rice, hearty and warming on the cold damp evening. We shared stories and wine with other pilgrims. Our host told us stories of previous pilgrims that had walked in and out her gates. Flickers of life shimmering brightly, sharing the snippets of their world then leaving as abruptly as they come in. A grand total of eight people were in the albergue for the night. A round of Belgian Schnapps was proffered after dessert. Our host had even kindly accommodated my lactose intolerance, and I had a small bowl of sorbet, chased by a burning shot of liquor.

The following morning we rose after several hits to the snooze button. It was absurdly nice to be sleeping without the sounds of traffic or snoring and being able to get dressed and packed without being quiet. The skies threatened more rain, and we made it through to the end of a winding forested track that morning before the clouds let it fall. The water fell in heavy sheets, and we stumbled into well timed pilgrim stop. In the middle of a deserted plain of Spanish wilderness out popped a camp. A ring of wooden logs full of fruit, stones shaped into a heart, hammocks and wooden structures filled with snacks, tea, coffee. With a sign; It’s all free.

We sat down, a steaming cup of freshly made instant coffee in our hands , breath curling in wisps in front of us. We sat at a wooden table on a simple wooden bench. The creator of the space was an ex pilgrim who had walked the Camino trail and couldn’t go back to normal life. That was ten years previously. He created this pilgrim stop a place meant to be properly free, not just by donation (though he accepted donations.) He wanted to truly have a place where money wasn’t needed for you to stop, relax, take a breather and refuel. His long dark hair fell about his shoulders as he showed us message upon message scribbled into the wood of the simple shelter. The words blended into one another, creating a patchwork of gratitude and love. We finished our drinks as he donned his faded orange Kathmandu jacket (that one of our fellow kiwis had given him two years previously,) to squeeze some oranges for juice. With many thanks to this man and his partner for their hard work putting together such a beautiful place to stop we strode back out into the water falling heavily from the darkened skies.

The rest of the day was a wet trudge, we stopped briefly in Astorga and in an extremely well stocked outdoor shop purchased two bright orange rather expensive for what they were ponchos. (Buy your poncho before you start the Camino!) Grabbed a bite to eat to warm our bellies and kept walking. On and on we walked as the rain heavy skies continued to wash the landscape, the burnt orange fields turned grey. Water dripped and fell to the outstretched leaves of parched trees, and the land greedily lapped up the life-giving waters. The skies were darkening further with the afternoon drawing thin when we made it to our stop for the night, a quaint little albergue on the edge of town. It was pricier then we expected (10 pound each) but the double bed, central heating and complementary coffee and biscuits was worth it. I sat back at the small wooden table nursing a hot cuppa and attempted to defrost as the resident gato a beautiful, lithe tabby cat came to say hello.

Shortly after we arrived, several other pilgrims shook the water from their coats at the door. One such couple we came to know as an American woman, Victoria and her husband and Irish man Cormick. The four of us got talking, and we decided to meal share. Turning our soup into a three course pilgrim meal of soup, pasta and canned fruit with biscuits for dessert. With of course the obligatory bottle of vino. Victoria had started her Camino in St Jean pied de Port as we had, Cormick however, was joining her just for a week. We shook our heads at the spring in his step and Victoria giggled along with us, Cormick was still so.. Fresh.

We collectively decided to walk together the following morning in the hopes of a nice sunrise. Tomorrow was a big day. We were to reach Cruz de Ferro, one of the highest points of the journey and where a large cross marks the spot to leave all your worries behind. Cruz de Ferro is known throughout the Camino. The tale goes you carry a stone with you from home and keep it with you throughout the walk and when you arrive at the cross that stone symbolises all your worries, fears and the hard times. You leave your stone behind and you descend the hill fresh and lighter than you were before.

I climbed into bed that night warm and contented, ready to leave all the pain and injuries of my experience behind me, to finish the trip with shoulders back. Santiago here we come!

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Buen Camino

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