Monday September Twenty-Eight, 2020
I will quite gladly admit to a level of foolishness on my part when it came to staying the night in Fuenterroble de Salvatierra.
My small crisis came about because of the nature of the albergue there. Or at least my perceived nature of the albergue there. By all accounts, it is one of the few remaining properly religious establishments still operating along the Via de la Plata. Now, this for me came as something of a conundrum, as my relationship with religiosity has always been a fraught one. Growing up as a gay child the teachings of the Church all too loudly denigrated that particular part of my being. To the point where such hateful sentiments and vilification established in me a resentment of all organised religions, but particularly the Christian religion that laid the groundwork for morality within my own culture.
As such I was very weary of the fact that the albergue in Fuenterroble de Salvatierra was overseen by the local Priest, Padre Blas. I very quickly imagined a rather staid and earnest establishment, where the Christian heritage of the Camino de Santiago would be strongly embraced and celebrated. And where I would feel like a particularly unwelcome outsider. My reluctance was so strong that I prepared myself for the option of pushing on through Fuenterroble de Salvatierra (which was only a twenty kilometres walk) and carrying right on to San Pedro de Rozados instead, which was a further twenty-eight kilometres away. So yes, my assumptions about what awaited me at Padre Blas’ albergue were so loaded with my distaste for the Church that I honestly preferred the idea of walking a fifty kilometre day over frequenting the albergue there.
Well, how wrong I was.
The albergue itself is an experience that I won’t forget in a hurry, and an experience that I feel so lucky to have had in my lifetime.
But first I had to arrive there, which involved a later start than usual, owing to the short distance of the day. I should admit also that it had a little something to do with the cooler air outside of the guest house that morning. And I might have loitered within its four walls for a little longer than usual while I procrastinated about leaving. But with a woolly hat pulled down over my head, as well as my windbreaker zipped tightly around me and a pair of thermal socks warming my feet, I finally stepped forth to welcome the day.
The route to Fuenterroble de Salvatierra provided a rather nondescript journey, over a mere twenty kilometres in distance. The (relatively) short journey almost made the day feel like a Cheat Day in a way, which was another reason for wanting to challenge myself with the extra twenty-eight kilometres if I were to sidestep Fuenterroble de Salvatierra. The path was an effortless one, and took me mostly through flat farmland. Towards the very end of the route much of the path was on a quiet tarmac road that felt pleasant underfoot. The landscape had reverted very quickly back to the drier, flatter terrain that I thought I had left behind me in Extremadura. The wonderfully wooded landscape that I’d enjoyed so much the previous day was nowhere to be seen, and dusty farmland came back to the fore.
As I arrived at my destination, just before 1pm, I was greeted by an unexpected group of fellow peregrinos headed towards me and away from Fuenterroble de Salvatierra. A mother walked alongside two young girls, who I suspect were her two daughters. And behind them were two men conversing loudly between themselves. I picked them all as being German, and they were in noticeably high spirits as they came closer towards me. We made our greetings to one another and wished each other luck for the day ahead. One of the men handed me a small bunch of green grapes that were freshly picked and assured me that they were very tasty. And to that I can certainly attest. They were sweet and sticky, and I ate them enthusiastically as the village appeared closer and closer.
After such a sudden burst of energy and human interaction the village itself proved to be a more sombre affair. With a population of just two hundred it was certainly a lot more populated than Calzada de Bejár had been the night before, with just eighty-seven inhabitants. But the village didn’t feel any livelier for the additional numbers and the streets were bare of any signs of life, except for cautious cats and a single elderly lady sweeping her front step.
I found the albergue easily enough on the other side of the village, but it was unattended as I arrived and so I rested myself in the sun outside the front door. I pondered my Plan B, to continue on to San Pedro de Rozados, when a small feline companion made himself known to me. We chatted for a bit and shared cuddles, and our conversation must have drawn the attention of one of the two volunteers who were working at the albergue. He was young, and he greeted me warmly as I stood to shake his hand. We fumbled with the gesture, realising mid-shake that it was not the done thing any longer, such was our new Covid reality. He spoke to me in English with a confidence that I had not experienced in quite a while and we chatted about how quiet the season had been, and how we both hoped for a quick end to the sad state of global affairs. He wore a pair of work boots, short shorts, a loose vest top and a bowl-styled haircut that suggested he had cut it himself, or someone equally less practiced. I had to laugh at his incongruous stylings because if he’d stepped out onto the very trendy streets of Shoreditch in London he wouldn’t have looked out of place in the slightest. In fact, he would have been incredibly on-trend.
My reservations about staying at the albergue were forgotten in an instant and I sat at a small table on the front porch to be welcomed formally by the volunteer. The cat made a home for itself very quickly on my lamp and purred contentedly while the volunteer stamped my credential for me and chatted about his time working at the albergue. It had been a perfect occasion for renovations to the building, as there were no guests to interrupt or displease with the works. With the check-in complete I put the cat back down on the ground as the volunteer led me to my room, which was behind the main building. My eyes lit up at the structure as my host introduced me to the Norwegian Cabin and gestured me inside. It was a small stone building, built between the bulk of two existing trees – their trunks incorporated into the corners of the building. That alone excited me, no end. But I was further enthralled by the fact that the structure had a thick turf roof that sprouted long blades of grass high into the air.
I stepped inside to find a bunk bed, desk and basin – nothing more – and I smiled at its simplicity and the raw nature of the stone structure. It was a perfectly monastic space, and I was thrilled to have the opportunity to call it my home for the night. Pinned to the ceiling was a map of Saint Olaf’s way, the Norwegian Camino that leads pilgrims from Oslo on a 640km journey north to Nidaros Cathedral in Trondheim. And on the wall above the basin were pinned a collection of Compostela stating completion of the Norwegian pilgrimage. Until that moment I had no idea that there was a Norwegian variant of a Camino, but no sooner did I have such knowledge than my interest was piqued.
I stared up at the map and imagined what such a journey might entail. I had only visited Norway once before, in the depths of winter, to see the Northern Lights from within the Arctic Circle in Tromsø. I knew from that experience alone that St Olaf’s Way could never be navigated during the dark and snowy winter months. So that left instead the endless daylight months of summer. I wondered how that might shape each day of walking, and how I might approach it as a pilgrim. Could I convince myself to stop at a reasonable time of day to rest and eventually sleep? Or would the excessive amount of daylight provoke in me a desire to just keep walking? My suspicion was that the latter approach would win, and with daylight still high in the sky I’d feel compelled to continue on and on, and on, until my body couldn’t continue any further.
Suffice to say the idea of such a pilgrimage was suddenly imbedded firmly in my brain and it became a very solid intention in that instant.
My host informed me that the local store closed at 2pm, and so before I did anything else I wandered down to stock up on water and fruit for the following day. The store proved more difficult to find than I imagined, being as nondescript as it was. I stepped in through the front door and was promptly shouted at by the proprietor who waved his arms at me frantically, shooing me from the premises. He vehemence took me by surprise, and I quickly made my retreat. It was only when I was back out on the steps of the store that I realised I’d missed a small cardboard sign asking that only one customer enter the space at a time, and as there had already been a customer inside I was one client too many. I thought perhaps that his angry tirade was a bit over the top, but the Spanish seemed anything but complacent about the pandemic and so I could forgive him his panicked outburst.
I made my purchase of water and fruit (and chocolate bars, Pringles and Chocolate Chip Cookies) and returned quickly to my Norwegian cabin to make the most of the space. I pulled up a chair and placed it outside the front door in the sunshine. I rummaged about for my long forgotten Kindle and settled myself down in the sun to enjoy the warmth of the sun, my tube of Pringles and some light reading. No sooner had I sat down though than I was joined by a feline companion who imagined I was about to share my Pringles with him. I refused, but he insisted, and so I refused all the more. His increasingly high-pitched demands drew the attention of another cat, and then another, until I had a small collection of feline companions rubbing themselves enthusiastically against my legs and clambering over my lap.
We finally agreed that Pringles weren’t appropriate fare for small felines and that none would be coming their way anytime soon. So they settled down and made themselves at home on the window ledge of the cabin and on my lap as I read throughout the remainder of the afternoon. I felt rested in next to no time and soaked up my novel setting with enthusiasm. My contentedness was reciprocated by my feline companions who each purred raucously in their very own states of bliss.
I tried to imagine the albergue complex in happier, pre-Covid days, and was disappointed that I didn’t have the opportunity to enjoy the setting with a more typical ambience. This compound would have been swarming with animated peregrinos loitering about the place and sharing tales with one another. Apparently Padre Blas’ albergue has something of a fun reputation about it with its funky lodgings and its communal dinners that are prepared in equal measure by the peregrinos and the volunteers.
Voices broke through the quiet and I realised that the Spanish couple I’d first encountered in Caceres had also arrived at the albergue. I had last seen them the previous Friday night at Carcabosa. They were in good spirits and I found them seated at the front of the albergue drinking wine and talking animatedly with a man who I took to be Padre Blas. We greeted one another warmly, but once more language betrayed us (or lack of language that is) and we could take the interaction no further. I took myself instead to the local bar and had a late lunch with cold beer while I wrote in my journal. The menu was as predictable as any other along the Via de la Plata – a soup starter, pork, chicken or beef as a main and then flan for dessert. But this particular meal had some love cooked into it also and it tasted delicious.
I made my way back to the albergue as a chill started to creep into the air. At 950 metres above sea level I was as high as I’d yet been along the Via, and as the month of October fast approached there was certainly a cool change in the night air. The temperature overnight was due to drop down to a mere four degrees, and so I braced myself for an interesting night of sleep. My host had given me a paper sheet and pillowcase for the bed when I’d arrived, but no blanket. And there was no option of a heater in the stone cabin either. So my warmth that night would come from the stone walls of the cabin and its turf roof, as well as my silk sleeping sack and as many layers of clothing as I could comfortably sleep in. I made a note to go to bed with a very empty bladder, to save me the discomfort of dashing to the main building block in the middle of the night to relieve myself.
I could have asked for a blanket of course, and I’m sure I would have received one. But I was taken by the idea of appreciating my little Norwegian cabin for all of the monastic simplicity that I was sure it was meant to inspire. And so when I did finally resign myself to bed I layered up with thermal leggings, socks and shirt, long trousers, a jumper and a woolly hat also. I braced myself for the chilly night air and made my way to the bathroom to clean my teeth and pee one last time. When I returned to the cabin and closed the door behind me I was surprised at just how warm it was within, with an ambient temperature that felt positively balmy in comparison to that outside.
I climbed into my sleeping sack and imagined that I wasn’t in the heart of Spain but that I was in the wilds of Norway instead. I imagined too that somewhere out there was a version of myself who’d let his discomfort with Christianity convince him to continue on past Fuenterroble de Salvatierra and walk a fifty kilometre day to San Pedro de Rozados instead. I felt sorry for that iteration of me in that parallel reality as that version of me had missed out on the spark that was the map of Saint Olaf’s Way. That version of me might still be none the wiser that such a Camino exists, and so he’s out there somewhere with no plans to one day walk it and discover more of Norway as he goes.
This version of myself however is all too happy that such knowledge exists in his life, and is all too eager to one day be able to state ecstatically that he’s completed Saint Olaf’s Way.
Watch this space…