Puebla de Sanabria to Lubián
Sunday October Eleven, 2020
At the end of Day Twenty-Seven I began my journal entry with the following exclamation:
“I hope that I remember today for a very long time. It was the kind of day that just kept packing more and more into it. A symphony of senses and experiences that did not let up until Daan and I arrived at our Casa Rural for the evening”.
And yes, I know that I’d already racked up a number of wonderfully memorable throughout my Camino, but there was a constant delight stitched into Day Twenty-Seven that I couldn’t let go of. I say a constant delight, but there were occasional moments of fear stitched into the day also, which I’ll of course get to in good time.
I rugged up warm in the comfort of my heated hotel suite, very aware that the temperature beyond the walls of the hotel was only around two degrees. There was an excitement attached to such an abrasively cool beginning though, and I bounced out onto the paved streets of Puebla de Sanabria with vigour and verve. I huffed and I puffed my way up through the centre of the town towards the castle and felt myself turn into a sweaty mess before I’d even walked 500 metres of the day. My heart was racing by the time I reached the top, but the climb had all been worth it once the world beneath me revealed itself. Only part of the world mind you, as much of it was obscured by a thick curtain of mist that sat above the river below and filled the valleys beyond.
The vista was so remarkable that I dared stop to take photos in the frigid morning air, breathing out thick tendrils of steam as I did so. But of course, if the early morning gloom and because of the nature of water vapour, my photos hardly did any justice to the view I could make out with my own naked eyes. I resigned myself to the fact that the fantastical landscape would just have to be remembered by my future self, rather than referred back to through a series of photographs. I considered using the moment to rummage through my pack to find my gloves, but I didn’t have the first clue where they might be, which I was soon to regret. I paid my respects to the castle once more, and began my descent down the other side of the rocky outcrop that Puebla de Sanabria called home.
Now, if I thought that my ascent up to the castle had been steep then I was alarmed to discover the descent back down towards the river was so much steeper. Steeper, and along an unpaved track that took me past the local cemetery and through slippery wet fields of long grass. My walking sticks helped to prop me up as I went, and saved me from ending up on my rear on more than one occasion. It didn’t help that I deviated from the official path as I went, preferring straight, sharply angled lines downwards rather than the more subtly angled zig-zagged route taken by most.
By the time I reached the river below my feet were sodden and frozen thanks to the thick dewy grass I’d been traipsing through. My feet weren’t faring much better either and they stung in the biting chill. My spirits were still high though as I made my way beyond the town and down onto a track that ran alongside the Rio Castro. Down in the valley, alongside the river, the chilly morning air was chillier still, and a thick fog had settled over everything. All my quiet around me, and it’s a detail I noticed especially well because my ears were peeled for the slightest sound about me. And what sound might I be listening out for you ask? Well, the sound of wolves of course. I was still in wolf country, after all, and the morning gloom hadn’t yet lifted to bring out any sunshine. So it was technically still ‘Wolf Time’. Or so I told myself.
What didn’t help was the fear factor than Daan had instilled in my head about the threat of wolves. He had left Puebla de Sanabria about twenty minutes ahead of me, but he was following the road out of town, rather than the river, to keep himself as far away from the forest as possible. I told myself that he was being overly cautious, and that the threat of a wolf attack was so infinitesimally improbable that it was an impossibility. But the deeper I walked into the forest, through an eerily silent landscape and the thick mist that obscured my outlook, the more my head began to subscribe to Daan’s fears. I began to feel like Little Red Riding Hood, off on her perilous journey through the woods to visit her ailing grandmother.
I was relieved when daylight finally broke and the sunlight began to penetrate through the thick morning mist. I decided that an wolves hanging about would’ve taken themselves off to bed by then, and that I could move on unmolested. Well, unmolested by wolves at least. The rising sun certainly didn’t bring any warmth with it and so I was still molested by the bitter cold as I went. As was my camera, whose battery decided that the early morning air was far too cold for it and so it gave up the ghost on my before the day had even begun. That said, it had been hanging about my neck since I’d left the hotel, and I knew full well that the cold was the enemy of battery life in any device. But I grumbled about its demise nonetheless because the sunrise filtering through the morning mist, while reflecting across the rivers surface, was photogenic, to say the very least. Add to that the thick carpet of autumn coloured leaves settled across the path, the beams of sunlight piercing through the mist, as well as the ghostly silhouettes of trees in the distance… Well, it was just another fantasy landscape that I was unable to sufficiently capture that morning.
The arrival of the sun burnt off the morning mist pretty quickly, which coincided with my arrival alongside the road that would progress my journey further. It felt good to be away from the damp of the river, although my shoes wouldn’t be dry again until the following day. I walked along the shoulder of the road in the early morning light and listened to Kruder & Dorfmeister through my headphones, which perfectly fitted the dreamy mood that had already been conjured up by the day. I was barely an hour into my adventure and already I had been filled with wonder, delight, awe and joy. I was perfectly content and would have been quite happy if that had been that, but the day just kept offering up more and more moments of splendour.
After a while the path departed from the road and turned right into another thickly wooded area. I was back in Little Red Riding Hood territory, and all of the magical mythical charms that came with it. At one point, beside an old church, a dense plantation of Oak trees had been planted in perfect symmetry up into the hillside. The line of tree trunks stretched on and on into the distance in perfect accordance with one another, while the dense canopy above kept sunlight out and a deep sense of foreboding in. The parallel lines of trees drew my gaze forward and invited me within and I couldn’t think of anything I wanted to do more than walk aimlessly into that fairy tale setting. But I demurred.
I caught up with Daan twelve kilometres out of Puebla de Sanabria in Requejo de Sanabria, where I found him seated at a small café in front of a blazing wood burner. He was in high spirits also but equally as cold as I was. We attempted to remedy that however with hot chocolates and espresso, which certainly did the trick of warming our bellies. For good measure we filled them with sickly sweet muffins also, and I bought Chupa Chups for us each as well. With an unnecessary caffeine and sugar high about to explode inside of our brains we bundled up once more, begrudgingly said farewell to the wood fire and set off again along a wooded lane towards our destination. We passed fast flowing streams, lush green paddocks and hearty looking horses as we went, and suddenly I felt like I had finally made it to my fantasy Camino landscape – the landscape I’d pictured in my head while planning my journey. It was nothing like the arid plains I’d left behind in Andalucía and Extremadura, and instead it felt like the setting of some mediaeval fairy-tale – all arcadian and pastoral.
The idyllic nature of our morning took a sharp turn for the worse however when we found ourselves isolated and alone in a forest and confronted by a savage herd of…
Yes, yes, yes, cows are docile creatures, usually. But in this case Daan and I encountered an exception. So while the majority of the beasts ran off through the forest, in what quickly became a stampede along the forest floor, one beasty remained bold and stood stubbornly across the path refusing to budge. It was the defiant stare that she shot back at us that caused our concern. Oh, and her rather massive size also. It was only once we were within ten metres of her and Daan raised his walking sticks to clang loudly with that she turned and ran with the others.
Relieved, we continued on, only to be confronted by the same rebellious creature as we turned the next corner. And so Daan repeated the clang, clang, clang of his sticks and our bullish tormentor turned once more and disappeared along the track, only to be found standing defiantly once more further along the path. Daan and I quickly read this behaviour as hostile, and so put our guard up accordingly. In reality there were perhaps a million other innocent reasons for what we read as being insolent and confrontational. But in the moment we seized on a narrative and stuck with it. In the meantime the stampede continued as we approached the herd again and again along the path. Their dull bells clunked noisily as they ran from us, and their weary ‘moos’ filled the forest with a fraught tension. The resulting cacophony only heightened our apprehension, and saw the two of us eager to exit the forest and finally make our way beyond the alarmed herd.
So, already in a jumpy state of anxiety, we were then confronted by a pack of angry farm dogs. I say angry but it’s of course a matter for debate over just how hostile these new canine companions were, but there was context to our new state of fear. I say context, but what I really mean is that we had a good excuse for being scared witless by this pack of working dogs. Not only were we already on edge courtesy of the cow’s seemingly unholy behaviour towards us, but our previous encounters with farm dogs had been anything but friendly so far along our respective Caminos. Any working farm dog we’d so far come into contact with had barked aggressively at us and run to the fence to warn us away from their charges. In this new scenario however there were no fences, and we weren’t dealing with just an induvial dog. One massive Spanish Mastif appeared at my heels from seemingly out of nowhere, and then a second and a third, and a fourth. These things were HUGE, and would easily be as tall as me if stood on their hind legs. As tall as me, but also most likely twice my weight. They trotted heavily behind us on their not insignificantly sized paws and gave a quick bark and a low growl before they began nipping at my shoes.
I’ve said it before; I’m usually great with dogs, and have lived with them for many years in the past. But rural Spanish dogs sit in a category well outside of my comfort zone. So the appearance of four of them in quick succession at our heels threw Daan and I into a very palpable state of ‘Fight or Flight’.
We chose Flight.
And boy did we fly.
We picked up the pace through the forest as if the Devil himself were at our heels. We huffed and we puffed our way along the track, certain that as soon as we paused to catch our breaths we’d be mauled alive by these vicious creatures. And so we raced along the forest floor that had been freshly trampled by the stampeding cows, only to be challenged still by the same stubborn cow standing across the path. Between her defiant posturing and the four massive Mastiffs surrounding us we felt like nature was conspiring against us. No longer were humans at the top of the food chain and somehow this collection of creatures were working in tangent with one another to end us.
The conversation between Daan and myself went a lot like this as we ran:
“How you doing Bro?”
“Not so good Bro. (Quick turn of the head) I’ve still got three behind me”.
“Okay. There’s still one ahead of me too”.
“At least we lost the cow”.
“No. She’s still up ahead. (Pause) Are they still behind us?”
“Yup. (Quick turn of the head) All three still. F**k they’re big. How are you holding up Bro?”
And so on and so forth, breathlessly checking in on our situation as if we were being hunted down by a group of merciless assassins. This went on for what felt like an eternity, until we finally reached the edge of the forest and two thin wires that made up a feeble electric fence. Daan and I straddled it (with caution) and celebrated our arrival on the other side with a high five. We’d escaped the danger zone unharmed with all fingers, toes, limbs and major arteries accounted for. Once out in the clearing we turned to see who else had shown up at the fence and were confronted by a solitary Mastiff, gazing out at us from behind the electric wire. The others had disappeared into the trees with the herd of cows.
Relieved, we began our ascent away from the forest through an area cleared for a new rail network. The Camino itself had been altered due to the new rail line, and so once we’d finally decided on a route to take we headed onwards and upwards, safe in the knowledge that our harrowing ordeal was behind us. It wasn’t long though before we realised the alpha of the pack – the Mastiff who’d made his way as far as the electric fence – was still trailing behind us, climbing the steep track at a close distance behind us. We returned to Flight mode and climbed harder and faster to try and lose him. But for all of our intentions the great beast remained behind us and kept us on edge until he finally turned his back on us at the top of the hill and returned down towards the forest.
(At this point we decided it was prudent to forewarn our fellow Peregrinos, Joy and Benedettea, who we knew would be walking through the forest the following day. We messaged them both to be cautious and alert and not to stop on any account lest they get mauled to death in a bloody frenzy of canine rage.)
A little further on we peaked, so to speak, at the highest point of the Camino Sanabrés and the Via de la Plata. At an elevation of 1,365 metres we had certainly achieved some decent glute action over the previous few days, but our celebratory spirit was based more around having survived our ordeal up against four ravenous canines and a demonic bovine.
We stopped in a little village called Pardornelo and sat ourselves in the sun on a park bench overlooking the local churchyard. We rummaged through our packs and made ourselves a couple of sandwiches using leftovers before deciding to patronise a small café across the road from us. It seemed only fair to support local business in such trying times, which was really our way of justifying a nice cold non-alcoholic beer and espresso each. Daan quizzed the owner about the nature of the dogs who assured us that they were friendly, and only wanting attention from us. A quick search on Google confirmed that the inherent nature of a Spanish Mastiff is everything but what we had assumed it to be. Adjectives such as affectionate, intelligent, loving, gentle and calm were used liberally on page after page dedicated to the breed. The only precursory warning attached to them should you be considering them as a pet was that they are prone to drooling and snoring, so hardly the natural born killers that we’d just spent the past hour running from. The thought of them just vying for our attention rather than trying to chase us from their territory was a disheartening one. With the sudden shift in perspective I was devastated not to have had the opportunity to pet them.
(To add insult to injury our warning to Joy and Benedetta went unheeded and the following day we received images of the two of them sat in the forest surrounded by the same four Mastiffs in a clear display of affection and good will.)
With our proverbial tails tucked between our legs Daan and I set off to complete the final stretch of the day that would find us in Lubián by its end. The sun held reign in the blue, blue sky as we meandered along grassy lanes that were bordered by ancient stone walls and lush woods. The filtered light through the trees and the long mid-afternoon shadows created a setting that was so, so dreamy, as if it were a fantasy landscape created specifically for a film. The serenity of it all was a long way off from the terror we’d experienced earlier in the afternoon, and we arrived in Lubián in a blissed-out state of mind ready for hot showers and cold beer.
Lubián appeared out of nowhere as we stepped from the trees and onto the edges of the small village. La Casa de Irene was only a few streets back from the woods and there we were greeted by another canine in the form of a large black Labrador. We gave him the benefit of the doubt and let him sniff our crotches (rather aggressively) as we arrived at the guest house. Our host was a wonderfully hospitable man, but equally no-nonsense, and he arrived to intervene with the overly affectionate greeting being given by his dog. He showed us around his immaculate establishment and left us to freshen up after our thirty-three kilometre trek.
Daan and I reconvened after our long hot showers and wandered towards the centre of the village to find food and beer. There were only two local bars, and so in the spirit of fairness we frequented them both for cold beer and tapas. The decision around which of the two establishments to eat at was made simple for us based on the fact that one started serving food half an hour earlier than the other and we were both dead keen on an early night. Our meals were cooked by an incredibly amiable Hungarian woman who came out to our table with a permanent smile stretched across her face. She certainly seemed like the kind of person with a story to tell, and on another evening perhaps Daan might have drawn it from her, but tonight we were far too pooped for much engagement.
The meal came with wine, and after the bottle of wine my eyes were drawn to the bottle of Ballantine’s Whisky behind the bar. The night beyond the restaurant door was definitely a chilly one, and the day had certainly been a long one, so the thought of a small whisky before bed suddenly appealed to me. Also, my middle name is Ballantine, so it seemed rude not to indulge in my namesake before calling it a night. I ordered with our Cheshire Cat hostess and watched with equal parts glee and horror as she free-poured the Ballantine’s whiskey into a large wine glass before bringing it out to the table. I balked at the sight of such much whisky, but I quietly celebrated the absurdity of such a generous pour. It had been a generous day after all, full of magnificent landscapes, well accomplished climbs, sunshine, happiness and also a healthy dose of terror. It had begun in the dark and the cold, beneath a castle overlooking a misty river, and it had ended with perhaps the world’s largest measure of whisky. And in between there had been the threat of wolves, the joy of a sunrise, the threat of more canines and the splendour of being alive still to tell the tale.