Monday October Twelve, 2020
Daan and I began our day with a hearty breakfast of toast, croissants, jams, and cake. Yes, sweet, sweet lemony cake. It was all washed down with freshly squeezed orange juice and hot coffee while a rather lovely cat watched on from the top of an adjacent chair. The dining room of the guest house was something that a set-designer might have dreamt up if you’d asked them to create an intimate, den-like setting in an ancient mountain chalet, befitting the tastes of your favourite Grandmother. It was made up of ancient stone walls, heavy wooden chairs and side-tables as well as nautically themed art hung about the place (even though we were nowhere near the ocean). There was also an inexplicably placed sewing machine sitting beside the entrance. A large fireplace dominated the corner of the room and, considering the near freezing temperatures outsides, I would gladly have hunkered down in that space for the remainder of the day with a good book in tow, the fire roaring and the cat settled contentedly on my lap.
But that wasn’t meant to be and Daan and I were hurried out of the dining room by our host instead, after our prescribed thirty minutes were up. Another couple were waiting patiently outside in the foyer for their own breakfast sitting. You see, due to Covid restrictions, our host could only seat guests within their own groups for meals and he could only cater to one group at a time. So he operated a one group in one group out policy, which, knowing what we now know about the virus, was never going to make an ounce of difference. Covid is much more pernicious than that after all.
We began our walk with full bellies and high spirits. And gloves. I’d made sure to find my gloves within my pack after not having the foresight to do so the morning before when leaving Puebla de Sanabria. If I’d felt the need for them then then I most definitely needed them when leaving Lubián as it was only two degrees beyond the guest house walls. The morning air bit hard on the exposed flesh of our faces and I pulled my beanie down as far as it would go over my head to keep as little of myself exposed to the cold. It wasn’t enough though and my nose and cheeks soon felt raw against the uncompromising cold.
We made our departure at a brisk pace to try and get some blood pumping about through our limbs. The path led us along a lovely descent away from Lubián that grew cooler and cooler the further we marched. It was then matched by a rather epic ascent up through dense woods that might well have played host to a Hansel and Gretel type fable, or better still a spooky Blair Witch Project type narrative. The track followed a deep recess in the landscape that seemed improbable due to its depth and its uniformity. Had the trench been dug out by human hands? Or was it a naturally occurring feature, gauged away by water perhaps? However the trench had occurred it was cold, and it was damp, and the high banks that rose up on either side of us created an uneasy sense of claustrophobia. The floor of the trench had been freshly dug up by what I assumed were boars. My very amateur ability at reading animal tracks could make out not only the markings of their cloven hooves but the loosened earth where their snouts had been rutting about to unearth nature’s delicious treats. There were wonderful amounts of mushrooms in bloom along the damp forest floor also, adding to the sense that nature was well and truly in command of the landscape we walked through.
Eventually we made our way beyond the trench and found sunshine that had finally managed to creep through the canopy of the trees. And even though it wasn’t enough to warm the early morning air it was still a pleasant sight and it gave a sense of warmth nonetheless. We climbed and climbed, and climbed some more, eagerly moving towards the pinnacle of our ascent and the promise of what lay beyond.
Yes, in leaving Lubián we were also leaving behind Castile y Leon and walking our way into Galicia. The arrival into Galicia meant that we were officially on the home stretch. Well, sort of. There were still another six days of walking ahead of us. But it was a very special moment for the two of us nonetheless, and so we sat to take it all in and contemplate the near completion of our journey. We sat a little longer still, snacking on fruit and chocolate and basking in the unobstructed sunshine that we were now privy to. Our spirits were high, and they grew higher still with the promise of a long, magnificent descent to counter the challenging ascent we’d just completed. And to compliment it further the sky was cloudless and blue, and the sun promised to shine on us for the remainder of the day.
And so we began our journey anew, through vibrant green farmland that played host to herd after herd of healthy looking cattle. Streams trickled confidently across the lush landscape and a new style of signpost appeared along our path to reinforce the idea that we were now in Galicia. Gone were the occasional spray painted arrows on rocks and pylons. And in their place (at every turn it seemed) were solid stone half-obelisks decorated with St James’ yellow scallop shell offset against a vibrant blue tile. And just for giggles each half-obelisk included a small plaque telling Peregrinos how many kilometres we had left before our final destination of Santiago de Compostela.
246 kilometres were left in our journey.
It was a number that inspired two opposing responses simultaneously. It screamed AWESOME, you’ve only got 246km left to walk while also hollering F**K, you’ve still got 246km left to walk.
And because every marker had a new, smaller number attached to it you couldn’t help but gaze at it as you walked past. It was the final countdown, even if the final destination was still a week away.
We stopped in Vilavella at Bar On for a hearty omelette and cheese bocadillo, coffee, and of course a nice cold 0% beer. We watched as a raucous parade of cattle traipsed through the streets of the village, followed in quick succession by farm dogs and a local shepherd. The cacophony of the cow bells was harsh and grating, but it still managed to bring a smile to my face. We sat and took it all in while Daan engaged in conversation with the bar owner. He explained to us that in the past week seven other pilgrims had passed by. Daan and I thought that was a rather healthy number, considering how few other pilgrims we’d encountered along our way. But then the owner explained that he would usually see ten pilgrims in a single day, which gave us another very pointed example of how damaging Covid had been.
We resumed our journey, going our separate paces with me charging on ahead. I popped my headphones into my ears and picked up where they had left off the day before playing Kruder and Dorfmeister. It was another perfect setting for the deep ambient tones of the duo, and I walked dreamily alongside fast flowing streams and rich green fields with a big smile stretched across my face.
And then, in an instant, the landscape changed once more, and I was confronted by huge boulders that were dotted about on a dry and arid landscape covered in coarse scrub. I had found myself in another setting for a dystopian science fiction film, only five-hundred metres on from what had been the setting for a Sleeping Beauty or a Little Red Riding Hood storyline. It was an amazing (and unlikely) transition, and the sudden contrast gave me such a buzz. To really hammer home the fantastical elements a little old lady appeared from nowhere before me, crossing a small stream on a rudimentary stone bride. She hobbled with haste with a long stick propelling her somewhat along the path. She was short and squat, with a wild mop of wiry grey hair, and if I had really wanted to I might have believed that she had freshly departed her gingerbread house after feasting on the corpses of Hansel and Gretel.
But that’s a little grim, isn’t it.
The newly transitioned path across the rocky terrain proved to be a small challenge, and I was happy for the walking-sticks that I’d bought all the way back in Salamanca. They’d been used since then, of course, but walking through this uneven landscape towards A Gudiña they really earned their keep.
The walk into A Gudiña was where the fantastical elements of the journey ended, and I was presented instead with a grim looking industrial town that I will admit dampened my spirits a great deal. My mood wasn’t helped by the biting wind that had just picked up and that was lashing at my exposed face and hands. I took refuge in a small bar that had a wood burner blazing in the corner and sat myself beside it to warm my frozen hands. I drank real (alcoholic) beer and ate croquettes while I wrote in my journal and waited for Daan to arrive thirty or so minutes later.
As we sat and warmed ourselves a Guardia Civil car pulled up outside the bar and two uniformed officers began to make their way towards the front door. A small panic overtook us, and we immediately imagined being quizzed about our previous movements and our intended destinations over the days ahead. Movement between regions in Spain was either forbidden, or frowned upon, depending on who was translating the news story. Our backpacks and our sticks were a dead giveaway as to what we were up to, and so we waited for their reprisals, but they never came. The officers ordered coffees instead and made small-talk with the barkeeper without even acknowledging our suspicious looking faces in the corner of the room.
Relieved, we made our way back out into the biting chill of the wind and wandered a little further into town. There we spied a hotel that looked a little better presented than the others we’d passed by, although not by much. Daan introduced ourselves to the proprietor, Jesús, whose wife then led us upstairs to show us to our rooms. We indulged in long hot showers before reconvening once more downstairs on the terrace beneath the rooms. We ordered cold beer as soon as we sat, and then more cold beer not long after that. And then more again, just for good measure.
Daan got chatting to the locals sitting around us, as well as the hotel proprietor and collectively they came up with a wild business plan for the incomplete monstrosity of a building across the road from us that had caught our attention. Building had begun on it thirty years prior, but no one had taken the time to complete it in the intervening years, which was a true travesty in all of our opinions. It had been styled like a castle (of sorts), with embrasures designed into the parapet of the roof, alongside a low lying turret. Beneath the parapet were three stories with a line of circular windows built into the brickwork, all rounded off with a suitable amount of graffiti courtesy of a local youth. It was indeed an odd site, but it was a bold and unforgettable design. And within ten minutes of conversation Daan and our companions had devised the plans for a 70’s revival discotheque that would host the type of raves that people would travel from all across the world for. The types of epic raves that would put Berghain to shame. The types of epic raves that would put A Gudiña on the map. Suffice to say that after three beers we were convinced that such a scheme just might work…
The chill evening air saw us bid adieu to our fellow drinkers and we moved ourselves inside where we sat beneath the obligatory wall-mounted television set found in every Spanish bar. VH1 music videos kept us dosed up to the eyeballs on 90’s nostalgia as hit after hit was blasted down upon us. Destiny’s Child were there. As were Britney and Christina. The Spice Girls made an appearance, as did Four Non Blondes. You name it, all the classics were present and accounted for.
Suffice to say our moods were high by the time the kitchen opened and we were summoned to move through to the dining room behind the bar. It was a huge space, filled with table after table that had clearly been set for large family gatherings. In a Covid world however it was just Daan and myself who made up the guest list, and so we were sat at pride of place in front of a roaring wood burner. The heat coming out of this thing was immense, but it was well received nonetheless in such a cavernous room on such a cold, cold night.
We ate mussels (despite the cold) that came with an incredibly good vinaigrette that made my mouth pucker and immediately ask for more. Steaks came next. Great hunks of meat seared to perfection and much appreciated after the duration of the day, and the cold, and the numerous beers we’d so far consumed before dinner. The meal was joined with red wine, but our waiter, Alejandro, had other refreshments in mind also and arrived at the table with a freshly opened bottle of Paniagua, a Galician Licor de Heirbas. It wasn’t my first outing on Heirbas, but it was certainly the first time that the sticky fluorescent yellow liqueur had been presented to me so forcefully. Alejandro was certainly an enabler in that respect, and he poured shot after shot for us into our glasses, indulging in equal measures for himself from a third glass that happened to arrive with the bottle.
If you’ve ever walked the Camino the simple mention of Heirbas is bound to provoke a sudden sense of nostalgia that is either fond to your mind or anything but. It is an acquired taste after all. For myself, and Daan also for that fact, it is a flavour profile pleasing to the palette, and so we were more than happy for Alejandro to keep pouring shots for us. As I’m sure the proprietor was happy for us to indulge at the behest of Alejandro’s animated encouragement. And each time he poured we would toast this or that and then proceed to gulp down the syrupy substance.
And so that is where the evening became a bit of a blur. As you can well imagine. We heard Alejandro’s life story in detail, although much of what was told has long been forgotten in the fog of Heirbas that prevailed. He had been married three times, that much I do remember, although just how he’d managed to ensnare one wife let alone three was anyone’s guess. He was, you see, a rather unfortunate looking character with a crooked face, a great jolly belly and a thinning mop of oily hair sprouting from his head. I don’t mean to sound ill-spirited, but if I had to give him some sort of artistic context I would liken him to a grotesque character from a Goya sketch. The other reason I remember his tale about being married thrice is because Alejandro was as camp as Christmas and hardly seemed the woman chasing type. And yet Daan and I had no reason to disbelieve him, such was his charismatic ability at storytelling, and we lapped up his life story with the same amount of gusto as we were lapping up the remaining red wine and the continuing shots of Heirbas.
We finished our meals and returned back to the front bar where we continued to drink with Alejandro and the proprietor, Jesús. What was being consumed at that point in the evening is anyone’s guess, but we may have returned to beer. Or did we perhaps move on to whisky? I really couldn’t tell you. All I do recall is striking up a rather involved conversation with the chef, a Portuguese man by the name of Hugo. I say man, but he was barely beyond his mid-twenties (is that ageist of me?) He was a fantastic English speaker, having lived in Ireland some years beforehand, and he seemed to relish the opportunity to put his notable language skills to good use. I just regret that my own English language skills weren’t up to scratch so late in the evening and after so much Heirbas. Daan and I were both surprised to find Hugo so far from a tourist hot-spot where his ample ability with English (and his not inconsiderable good looks) might serve him better. But despite the lack of remembered detail what I do recall is that Hugo didn’t share the same privileges as Daan or myself, and that the reason he worked at all was to support his younger brothers through university. It wasn’t to save money, or to travel, or to party, or to consume. It was to ensure the education of family. Even through my drunken haze I knew that Hugo was an infinitely finer human being than myself.
It was after midnight before I finally made my way back upstairs to my room and collapsed into my bed. Daan had remained downstairs at the bar.
“Just one more”, as he is wont to say…
We had a much bigger day ahead of us the following day. Thirty-five kilometres of walking in fact. With a whole heap of climbing involved, as well as an initial stretch of twenty kilometres before we arrived at the first village. But we’d clearly overlooked those small details as we’d embarked on our enthusiastic adventures with alcohol that evening. My inability to recognise the condition of the bed as I collapsed into it, as well as Daan’s reluctance to call it quits when he might have, both had repercussions the following morning.
But that’s another story, for another time.