Salamanca to El Cubo de la Tierra del Vino
Saturday October Three, 2020
After a two day break in Salamanca I was ready to hit the road again and continue on my way to Santiago de Compostela. The downtime exploring Salamanca had been great fun, with many wonderful surprises thrown in for good measure, but a nervous energy had crept in during my second day there and found me pining for the open road once more. My clothes had been washed and dried, my shoes had a new pair of inner-soles in them, I had new walking sticks to become accustomed to and there were new items of winter-friendly clothing packed into my backpack. Suffice to say I felt properly reset and ready for the days ahead. The one fly in the ointment however was the weather, which had packed in quite dramatically during my two day stay in the city. Not only had the temperature dropped considerably, but the wind was now whipping through the city streets with vehemence and the rain… Well, when it rained there was zero chance of you remaining even remotely dry under the weight of it. It came down heavy in great big sheets and flooded the roof gutters and the streets below in next to no time.
I had listened to the heavy showers outside my apartment as I fell asleep the night before my departure and had resigned myself to a wet start the following morning. But by the time I’d packed my backpack and headed out onto the still dark streets of Salamanca the skies had cleared and seemed to suggest that they might stay clear for some time. I crossed my fingers and hoped that it would be so. The wind was still in full force however and it whistled down the narrow lanes of the city as I set off into the cold morning.
The route out of Salamanca was a long stretch of apartments, suburbia and then industrial landscapes, and it seemed to take forever to finally feel free of the place. The occasional honking horns from passing cars offered me some encouragement as I departed, as did the soundtrack to Les Miserables, which blared through my headphones and kept me feeling upbeat despite the considerably downbeat content of the actual narrative. I waited until I was free from the city fringes and safely out in farmland once more before I started belting out the lyrics myself, with all of the out-of-tune enthusiasm I could muster…
“Two Four Six Oh One…!”
“Do you hear the people sing…?”
“Empty chairs at empty tables…”
“One Day More…!”
(Trust me, it didn’t sound pretty.)
The route towards El Cubo de la Tierra del Vino was a painless trek and mostly flat until the very end. Until then it followed long, straight gravel paths that were bordered by empty fields that stretched off towards the horizon. Which was surprising really, because on my way to the ‘Square Land of Wine’ I expected to actually see ample signs of grape vines and wine harvesting, but that wasn’t the case.
The sun came up, but the temperature didn’t, and the high for the entire day was only twelve degrees. That might have been okay in its own right, but what didn’t help was the incessant wind that whipped its way across the empty landscape, unobstructed as it was by trees or crops of any kind. It cut deep with its cold barbs and as a result I walked the entire 36 kilometre distance without stopping once for a break. My refusal to take a break didn’t come out of any sense of machismo or heroism, but was purely driven by the fact that I never found a spot that was truly sheltered from the wind where I might rest comfortably. And so I simply continued on and on, and on, pushing through the wind and the still commonplace discomfort of my feet. Music became my crutch that day, and after Les Miserables came Queen, because Queen anthems were a perfect antidote to the feral weather and the feral mood that might otherwise have taken hold had it not been for Freddie’s distinctive vocal range.
“I want it all!”
“Fat bottomed girls…”
“Don’t stop me now!”
“I see a little silhouetto of a man. Scaramouch, Scaramouch, will you do the Fandango!”
(It didn’t sound any better than my attempts at Les Mis.)
I eventually caught up with Benedetta, an Italian woman I’d met the day before in Salamanca when a group of six of us had attended a Pilgrim’s Mass at the Cathedral. Benedetta had set off after the mass to walk a smaller day to Calzada de Valdunciel, and by her account it had taken her the better part of the afternoon to travel the short distance owing to the wild winds and the driving rain that she’d endured. I remembered that same wind and rain well as I’d watched it with some dread from the comfort of my apartment that same afternoon. I’d pondered Benedtta’s journey as I watched the rain come down, and commiserated with her on what must surely have been an unpleasant afternoon of walking. But she was in high spirits as I caught up to her on the path and we chatted eagerly for an hour or so as we walked side by side. Sharing the path with a fellow peregrino was a first for me, but it came as a pleasant surprise and I enjoyed the easy banter that came as we walked. Benedetta was certainly a person suited to talking, and she can do it in five languages no less. I enjoyed her lively energy as we went, and was reminded of a number of my female friends, past and present, in her mannerisms and ideas, making her even more instantly likable. We yarned about this and that as we went, and I looked forward to seeing her again later that evening for dinner, and again the following day in Zamora.
Benedetta stopped to take a break while I carried on ahead, and just a short distance along I was surprised by a couple hunkered down in a drainage culvert, shying away from the wind while they ate their lunch. It took me a moment to realise who I was seeing, as they’d managed to make themselves quite small against the wind. It was the first Spanish couple I had come across two weeks beforehand in Zafra. It had been at least a week since I’d last seen them, so it was a pleasant surprise to say the least. We smiled and we waved, and we made the smallest of small talk with our limited understanding of one another’s language. But despite the limitations it was still a pleasant and buoyant encounter.
And so I continued on, step by step, by step against the wind, while trying out my new walking sticks as I went. I’d quickly realised that I would never get a satisfactory rhythm with both sticks as I walked too damned fast. As such the sticks needed to swing wildly alongside me in order to keep pace with my feet. I tried a variation of step-to-stick ratios, but nothing seemed to flow. So I settled with just one stick instead, which was perfect for me, and alone it still managed to propel me along quite nicely. There was something about the addition of the stick to my shadow along the ground beside me that I quite enjoyed also, although don’t ask me why.
And then all of a sudden (after five and a half hours of walking) I reached my destination of El Cubo de la Tierra del Vino. It was a nondescript little village with a healthy population of 429 humans, and possibly just as many scrawny cats who meandered about in the empty streets. The most important thing to note about El Cubo de la Tierra del Vino however was that it came with the promise of wine.
I arrived at the albergue and called out “Hola” as I neared the front door. I heard movement within, but rather than the host it was Daan who greeted me at the entrance. He had left Salamanca the day before also, after the Pilgrim’s Mass, and had braved the wet and wild weather alongside Benedetta. We hugged and quickly caught up on each other’s adventures over the past twenty-four hours before our host brought us bunches of grapes that he and his friends had picked earlier that morning. They were delicious. But even more so was the glass of homemade red wine that was offered up minutes after the grapes, and only seconds after I’d mentioned to Daan that I really fancied a glass of wine. We were in a village literally called the ‘Square Land of Wine’ after all.
As well as wine cultivation the owner of the albergue raised Arabian stallions, one of which had greeted me as I approached the hostel. We acknowledged one another as I approached, and he moved from the other side of the paddock to investigate me further. But despite my willingness to converse at length with him I had to end our repartee when he quite aggressively tried to chomp at my hand as I petted him. Despite that he really was a remarkable beast, and seemed to me to be very, very knowing. I can’t explain that sentiment any better, so I won’t attempt to, except to say that I felt like I was being judged by him – and I felt that he wasn’t particularly enamoured by what he saw.
The host also bred Galgo Espanol, which I’ve always had a massive soft spot for in light of my love of Greyhounds and my former guardianship of a whippet. Up to twenty of the Galgos shared a compound alongside the albergue and I was eager to sneak a peek at them and imagine which one I might choose to keep if I had the opportunity. They were all equally mesmerising in their statuesque and graceful ways, except for one who seemed overly aggressive and made his way around the compound bullying the others. They were certainly not bred to be pets however, and there was very much a working dog quality about them. I fretted however at what a dog’s fate might be if it didn’t live up to those working tasks assigned to them. I suspected there wasn’t a lot of sentimentality attached to these beautiful creatures the way it might be back in London or Melbourne, or Wellington.
I farewelled the Galgos and made my way to the local bar to indulge in more wine, as well as to write in my journal. I’d imagined a quiet wee spot to collect my thoughts and to jot them down on paper. In my head I’d anticipated heading to something akin to a quaint English pub on a Saturday afternoon to gather my thoughts – a common enough activity when living in London. What I got was an experience that was quite the opposite however and I joined a raucous congregation of perhaps sixty men crowded into the not particularly large space of the bar. The room was rowdy with boisterous conversations being had between men who stood and yarned enthusiastically at one another. Others sat at tables covered by green felt mats, playing a very animated card game. I had anticipated a much quieter experience, but clearly Saturday afternoon in an English pub translated very differently to Saturday afternoon in a Spanish bar.
Amongst the sixty odd men I was surprised that I could only count a grand total of two females in the mix. Their presence struck a chord, if only for the scarcity of their sistren. I thought to myself how long it had been since I’d seen the gender divide played out so strikingly in a public space. Suffice to say I couldn’t remember ever seeing it so flagrantly played out. Not in football stadiums, nor pubs and not even in gay bars. Despite the gender imbalance the bar manifested a very festive atmosphere, but one that was so animated that I eventually lost my ability to think.
I paid for my two glasses of exceptionally crisp and delicious white wine, and was surprised when the bartender called out ‘Dos Euros’. I thought I had misheard him, but sure enough two euros had gotten me two rather large and memorable glasses of wine. Not to mention a plate of tapas with each one. And if it hadn’t been for the defeaning noise in the bar I would have gladly stayed put there for many more hours and many more glasses of the delicious liquid.
Dinner at the albergue was a much less noisy affair, but it was animated and lively nonetheless with a full house of peregrinos. Together we sat around the dining table and shared food brought out to us by the host’s elderly mother. The meal was exquisite in its homemade simplicity, as was the wine that flowed generously around the table. The banter was friendly and familiar, and my spirits were high enough by the end of it all that I didn’t hesitate to revisit the bar later on in the evening alongside Daan. The manic energy within the bar had dissipated a little, but there was still a buoyant buzz about the place that kept Daan and I entertained for a couple more hours into the evening.
I couldn’t tell you how many drinks we consumed during that time, but it was a sufficient enough volume to ensure that we lost count in the first place. What didn’t help was Daan’s ongoing insistence that we have “Just one more”, which was a phrase I became very familiar with over the following weeks, and which led to many a merry night over the remaining course of the Camino. The banter flowed freely between us, while the low, low priced drinks flowed more freely still. So much so that I couldn’t tell you what time we eventually made it back to the albergue, or what state I was in when I finally climbed into bed. All I remember was that my room was exceptionally cold, but I’d expected as much. Any number of people had forewarned me that albergue owners were reluctant to turn on their heating except in the most extreme of circumstances. And while it was noticeably chilly without and within it clearly wasn’t chilly enough to justify the extra expense of heat.
The beauty of heading to bed in an alcohol induced stupor however is that no matter your level of discomfort you will likely fall asleep rather promptly, which is exactly what happened.