Embalse de Alcántara to Grimaldo
Thursday September Twenty-Four, 2020
Waking up with an albergue full of other pilgrims was a unique experience for me on my twelfth day of walking. Well, when I say full what I really mean to say is not empty. The five of us who had stayed the night at Embalse de Alcántara barely made up a quarter of the albergues capacity. But that said, it was nice to begin the day with a bit of banter over a shared breakfast and the hum drum noises of folks preparing themselves for the day ahead. It made a pleasant change from waking up solo in an empty hostel and heading out into the world without any human contact to begin the day with.
I felt for the Spanish couple and Gerald who had to slip their feet into still wet shoes and boots after being caught out in the rain the day before. But they seemed in good spirits about it all, being seasoned pilgrims as they were. And so after a leisurely breakfast we bid each other farewell as we departed for the day and headed away from the embalse towards Grimaldo.
Knowing there were others on the path with me that day, and that we were headed towards a shared destination later that afternoon, changed my entire departing mindset that day. The promise of conversation at the end of the day, over a shared meal and drinks, lifted my spirits and propelled me onto the Via in a very different way to how I’d been propelled before. There was a different kind of promise to the day, and I bounced onto the path with eager feet and happy thoughts.
Helping bolster my happy thoughts was the knowledge that Day Twelve was a relatively minor affair. At a meagre 22 kilometres in distance it felt like more of a stroll around a park in comparison to many of the bigger days that I’d put behind me. The morning was overcast, and the temperature was only due to peak at 24 degrees, meaning that the day promised to be a cool one also. It all added up and I entered onto the Via with the idea in my head that the day would be a doddle, in contrast to many of the other previous days that is. And it was.
After a short climb away from the embalse I was back into open, barren farmland. The gloom of the overcast day made it look sadder than it surely was, but something about it seemed post-apocalyptic, as desolate and darkened as it was. The angry mood of the post-apocalyptic setting was greatly enhanced by the boisterous attention given to me by a farm dog that needed to be passed in order to cross through a paddock. When I say boisterous I’m really being very polite about him. This dog was feral and ferocious, and his angry barks spelt caution as I moved into his territory. Granted, he was only doing his job of protecting the sheep within the paddock, but he did this job a little too well and filled my head with alarm, and a not small element of fear. It didn’t help that his barks were followed up by a long, bounding stride that brought him side by side with me within a matter of seconds.
I certainly consider myself a dog person, and I have a fantastical idea in my head that there is a level of communication possible with animals that boils down to body-language and presence, as well as tone and actions. For that reason I’ve never felt uncomfortable around canine companions, and will approach them in greeting as often as it’s appropriate. This beast was having none of that though, and even as I tried my best to be as upright and confident, but non-threatening as I possibly could be, his snapping jaw kept reaching for me and shattering my idea that we might ever be friends. I moved through the paddock at pace, being driven on by his ferocious exclamations. It was then that I wished for a set of walking sticks to wave and threaten with, but alas I was without and moved along with great intent to reach the gate at the other side.
With the dog behind me the day settled down again and I was left with the much more placid company of cattle and the occasional sheep on the path around me. None of them were anywhere near as interested in me as the dog had been, which suited me just fine.
The sky remained dark and morose looking, but it didn’t seem threatening like the previous day’s sky had been. Which also suited me just fine. I journeyed on, across a fairly nondescript landscape that only kicked in a gear towards the end of my walk as I neared Grimaldo. It was then that I encountered a rather daunting slope that loomed over the path where I stood and threatened to take some wind out of me. And that it did. It was so steep that cyclists were directed to take an entirely more congenial track around the peak that I was about to embark on.
Now, the cheat in me could have followed the cycle path and experienced a gentler ascent up the hillside, but other than my unfriendly encounter with the dog that morning I didn’t really feel like I’d been challenged that day. And so the steep slope was my way of engaging more fully with the Via. So up I climbed. I huffed and I puffed, and I occasionally cursed, but by the time I arrived at the pinnacle of the slope the scenery had shifted dramatically and felt very mountain-esque, covered as it was in towering pine trees. The air was full of the fragrant aroma of damp pine needles that covered the forest floor, and the track was spongey and soft with fallen needles beneath my feet. It was invigorating to smell the air so intensely loaded with the scent of fresh pine after recent rainfall. Bliss, bliss, bliss I tell you.
I found a rock and sat myself down to take it all in and breathed in as much of the fragrance as I could. In truth I was also using the rock as an opportunity to catch my breath after such a brutal climb. But considering how gentle and mild the gradient of the path had been throughout the rest of the day I couldn’t begrudge it of its urge to throw in this latest wildcard.
On the other side of the rise lay Grimaldo. Well, in theory anyway. The map in my guidebook told me it was there, as did the map on my phone. But the village stayed hidden from me for much longer than I thought it ought to and only made itself visible as I was beginning to believe that there was some universal conspiracy against me ever finding it. But once I’d arrived I realised the reason for my difficulty in finding it – there was so little of it to be found in the first place.
I arrived at the guest house with ease and found my host, Caesar, in his garden digging a ditch for a series of outdoor lights that he planned to install. He was a thoroughly pleasant man and greeted me with a great grasp of English that completely trumped my appalling grasp of Spanish. He showed me into the guest house and let me know that as I was the first to arrive I had first choice of his three rooms. The first room he showed me to had the signature of ‘Federico García Lorca’ on the door, and I declared then and there that that was the room I wanted to spend the night in, Lorca being close to my heart. Caesar seemed surprised that I would be so adamant about his Lorca room, but even more surprised that I knew who Federico García Lorca was in the first place. I assured him I was a big fan and relieved myself of my pack onto the floor at the bottom of the bed. The Gaudi room and the Picasso room could go to Joy and Gerald, who I knew were behind me on the path and who would arrive later on in the afternoon.
Caesar told me his story as he checked me in to the guest house and relayed how he had lost his job as an architect in the 2008 crash. At the mention of 2008 I shuddered a little, recognising that 2020 was the next most significant date of misfortune the globe had encountered, and that it had the potential to be so much more damaging globally than 2008 had. Caesar had turned that initial misfortune into an opportunity however, and with the money he had saved he bought the current building as a derelict ruin. And in the twelve tears since he had rebuilt it meticulously, and lovingly, to be the accommodation that I was now due to rest my head in. His restoration ability could not be questioned, nor could his eye for detail, and the house came with so many small delights that you’d probably need to stay a week to discover them all.
I showered in an incredibly roomy bathroom and put myself to bed for a short siesta. By the time I’d awoken the sun had overcome the previously overcast day and held sway in a primarily blue sky. Both Joy and Gerald had arrived at the guest house also, and beyond my bedroom door I could hear them being shown around by Caesar. I hurried up to greet them, still chuffed to bits that I now had company on my travels and the promise of conversation at the end of the day.
My fellow peregrinos headed to their own rooms for their own showers and siestas while I headed out into the mid-afternoon sun to explore the village and beyond. I found a track that led me from Grimaldo and up into the hills, drawing me further and further on beyond the village. There was a point at the peak that I had my eye on, and so I continued up, wearing just flip-flops on my feet (jandals or thongs if you’re a Kiwi or Aussie). It wasn’t the best choice of footwear as the path was covered in large loose gravels, but the relief of being out of shoes and socks negated the fact that I was slipping and sliding all over the place in my very inappropriate choice.
The view at the top was fantastic, and well worth the climb. It made all the difference also that after two previous days of overcast, closed-in gloom I could now see blue sky and a landscape stretched out before me that lifted my spirits even more than they currently were. There were hills all about the village, and shades of green on the landscape that had been sorely missing during the first couple of weeks on my journey. There were wind turbines scattered about all over the place also, and the whole scene gave me a wee rush of excitement for the many days of travelling that still lay ahead of me.
I returned to the still sleeping village and made my way to the guest house where Joy and Gerald had woken. We recapped our stories from the day (including our individual tales about the aforementioned dog) before the three of us moved down to the village’s one bar for cold beer and more shared yarns. The evening air grew chilly rather quickly, and so as soon as the village’s one restaurant opened we crossed the road to it and settled in for dinner. Oh, to be sociable again, and to converse over dinner and drinks. It really was such a joy, and I was rather surprised at how much I had missed such simple social interactions. And I couldn’t have asked for better company to reintroduce me to conversational dinners either. Both Joy and Gerald were really quite lovely people. Their temperament and their outlook were perfectly suited to my own, and it made for another wonderfully pleasant meal. My head was swimming by the end of the evening after hearing their tales of previous Caminos and the adventures they’d had along the way.
Every encounter in life has the potential to steer us off in a new direction, make us re-evaluate our position on a long held belief or inspire us to try something different. The problem with our daily encounters though is that so many of them come at us thick and fast and we’re not left with any time (let alone inclination) to fully absorb the value of each one. Also, life gets in the way, just because it does, so full of stuff and nonsense as it is.
The beauty of Camino life though is that all that stuff and nonsense gets stripped away, and you exist in a world that’s about absolute basics. Food. Water. Shelter. Everything else is an added bonus, to be tagged onto your day as and when you find it. And so after twelve days of walking I was fully able to absorb and appreciate just how special it was to have encountered these two fellow peregrinos. It gave me the opportunity to really value their presence, as well as their wonderful characteristics and their contributions to my own Camino story. Their presence opened up a door to what Camino life might really be like also, without a global pandemic upturning the day-to-day reality of billions of lives and the world otherwise being put on hold for the majority of its inhabitants.
It didn’t go unnoticed by me that just two individuals could shift my Camino narrative so sharply and open up an entirely new pilgrim experience. So it’s no surprise that after ample food, red wine and great banter I went to bed a very, very happy human.