Xunqueira de Ambía to Ourense
Thursday October Fifteen, 2020
According to all the media reports throughout the previous week Ourense was going to prove to be our Archilles Heel. As region after region shut themselves off from one another in the wake of Covid our freedom of movement across Spain was becoming more and more challenged. Ourense in particular had been considered a Red Zone for at least the previous week, which was not the alert level we wanted our destination to be. A Red Zone, as far as we could make out, involved curfews on the population and limited trading hours for businesses. It also meant limited access in and out of the city, which did not bode well for us. Every evening we had been watching the local news with equal measures of wonder and dread. October 2020 was proving to be a remarkable moment in Spanish history. Hell, it was proving to be a remarkable moment in human history the globe over.
As such, we had absorbed any and all information that was made privy to us through the media and through the conversations we were having with locals in various bars. And so, each evening, with more and more information at our fingertips, we had discussed what the new Covid reality might mean to mine and Daan’s Camino.
Ourense, with its Red Zone tag and closed borders, was going to prove our biggest challenge, or so the media and locals would have us believe. We had committed hours of conversation throughout the previous week to decide exactly what we might do once we arrived there. We had considered walking as far as the city border before jumping on a bus to a destination somewhere beyond Orense. The purists in us didn’t like the idea of succumbing to wheeled transport however and so we binned that idea pretty quickly. We imagined walking around Ourense instead, to Cea perhaps, adding approximately twenty kilometres to the day. That would bring the days total distance to around fifty kilometres though, which we each balked at. We even contemplated the idea of hiring horses to ride around the border of the city. This seemed less like cheating than the bus option, and much more palatable than a fifty kilometre day. Also, adding horseback riding to our Camino seemed like an awful lot of fun, and one hell of a story to retell in later years.
The final consensus that we had reached on the morning of our departure was to get as close to Ourense as we possibly could and then make up our minds from there. If we found horses, then so be it. But if not we would simply walk through the city until we’d reached Cea, or walk until we were stopped by officials, plead our innocence and base our next decision upon their response. Either way we were approaching the day rather fatalistically. A tiny little part of me was even excited for the ambitious possibility of walking right through to Cea and completing a fifty kilometre day. That would certainly be something to draw an element of pride from.
However the day managed to unfold Daan and I were ready for it.
That said, the day we encountered was far removed from anything either of us had anticipated.
We ate breakfast at a local café, donuts included, and washed it down with a magnificently terrible espresso. It was a late departure from Xunqueira de Ambía, but despite the late time it was still incredibly cold as we left. The path was an easy one, predominantly along the shoulder of a quiet country road that ambled through forgotten looking farmland. My only gripe as we went was that my left shin was giving me grief and bursting with prickly pain every time my foot came down upon the tarmac. I tried to focus beyond the discomfort, but it always had a funny way of returning back to the fore of my mind.
At least the ambiance of the day was pleasant. There was a murky, damp gloom to it that kept a slight chill in the air. The clouds stayed low and cool for the first half of the morning until both they and the landscape seemed to change in unison. The dark clouds cleared to reveal a warmly glowing sun high above us, and the shoulder of our gentle country lane became a concrete pavement leading us through a vast industrial landscape on the outskirts of the city.
The contrast from where we’d recently departed from and where we now found ourselves was a severe one, and the freshly revealed sunshine felt warmer still as it radiated off of all the concrete beneath my feet. I was relieved when I finally arrived at A Castellana, just seven kilometres out of the Ourense. It was here that I had agreed to meet Daan should I end up ahead of him, which I had. I found a busy bar with a large outdoor deck behind it and sat for a helping of 0% beer and tortilla while I waited. It was good to sit and take some of the pressure off of my shin, while also sizing up the Covid-gripped world around me. So far everything about the day seemed fairly ordinary. Ordinary in that I was sitting in a bar drinking beer and eating tortilla, while every bar and shop along the same street remained open. Cars filled the roads and pedestrians filled the pavements while I filled my face greedily.
I waited for Daan, and together we sat and scanned the reality of our ‘not-as-Red-Zoned-as-we’d-imagined’ reality. With our ‘boots on the ground’ information now available to us we agreed to continue with our original plan – we would simply continue to walk the Camino for as long as we could. And for now that looked a lot like walking through Ourense, and then on to wherever we could find accommodation beyond it.
After a second slice of tortilla we hit the pavements once more and continued to walk. The urban setting leading into the city was uninspiring, taking us through dirty suburban streets over hard concrete pavements. The closer to the city I got the busier the streets and shops around me seemed to become. But despite all the evidence to the contrary I was still certain that at some point I would come face to face with a checkpoint and be told by a military official to turn around and go back to where I’d come from. But nothing happened. No Guardia Civil greeted me on the streets, and no barriers made themselves visible. I simply kept walking, and walking, and walking, until Google Maps told me that I was in the heart of Ourense.
I phoned Daan, who I had ended up walking ahead of once more, and reported my findings to him. He announced the same. Shops were open to shoppers, terraces were full of drinkers, streets were full of cars and pavements were full of bustling pedestrians going about their lives like nothing was amiss. Well, other than the fact that they were all required to wear masks. We lamented the fact that horses were no longer necessary to complete our journey, but were rapt nonetheless that all of our fears had been for naught.
Daan caught me up at a farmacia, where I gladly purchased cortisone cream for my bed bug bites. We stepped back onto the bustling street and made our way towards the river together, still bemused by the ample signs of life on offer in a city within the grips of a massive Covid outbreak. What on earth had the media been on about all this time? The sense of normality was a welcome relief, and it certainly gave us a newfound sense of confidence as we continued to walk un-accosted through the city streets.
We crossed the Rio Minho by way of the Ponte Romana and sat ourselves down once more on a terrace at a bar with a view back across the bridge. The bridge and its surrounds were thronged with pedestrians, enough so that keeping two metres apart seemed quite unachievable at certain points. I could only imagine the numbers of tourists thronging across the bridge in a pre-Covid world, not to mention making their way to the many hot baths that Ourense was famous for.
Daan and I ordered charcuterie and beers from our waiter and marvelled at how normal everything seemed around us. We ordered two more beers and I complained about my shin. Daan, in turn, complained about his also. The second beer went down a treat against the heat of the day. As did the charcuterie. But in the midst of our conversations we were still none the wiser about how much further we were prepared to walk in order to escape the Lockdown clutches of the city. And then, prompted by the calm ambience of our setting as well as the discomfort of our ailments, Daan proposed what neither of us had ever considered in the lead up to our journey to Ourense. And that was to simply stay put and stay there overnight.
The idea was a revelatory one, and also an increasingly realistic one, considering the signs of life and normality we were witnessing about us. I jumped onto an accommodation app on my phone to see what might pop up and was surprised by the volume of accommodation options available to us. Not just that, but the bargain basement rates that they were going for. We made the quick choice of a two bedroom apartment right in the heart of the city next to the Praza Maior. It looked chic and spacious, and came with a washing machine also. And all for the fairly inconsiderable sum of €50.00. A phone call was made, and it was agreed that we could check in within the next twenty minutes.
We retraced our steps back across the bridge and towards the city centre. The decision felt like the best one to have made as my shin still sung out from below me each and every time my leg hit the cobbled streets. Something about the decision had lifted a veil of sorts also, and I realised how much anxiety I had been holding onto in the lead up to our arrival. Up until then along my Camino I had absolutely relished the idea of the unknowns that would meet me at each destination. But Ourense had been different, and because of the finely tuned doomsday messaging from the media I had dreaded this particular destination. Dreaded it because of what it might mean for the final few destinations I still needed to arrive at before Santiago de Compostela.
Our host was young and friendly and let us into the ridiculously spacious and well set-up apartment. In a pre-Covid world it certainly wasn’t going for €50.00 a night. It would have been three times as much, easily. Not that we were complaining about it. Not in the least. We took long, hot showers, threw on a load of washing and then went our separate ways as Daan napped and I sauntered about the city exploring its nooks and crannies. I stocked up on yet more socks for my pack (not that any of my existing pairs were showing signs of wear and tear) and bought a second pair of long trousers to alternate out with my only other pair. I questioned my need for buying extra items so late in the Camino, but there was the promise of some weather ahead of us, and so I thought it best to have options.
Daan and I reconvened a couple of hours later and sat in the Praza Maior for another beer, which very quickly became two and then three. We were both in high spirits at our good fortune at not having been turned around by the local authorities and sent on our way. We were in high spirits also marvelling at the laissez-faire atmosphere that filled the space around us. The terraces of every bar and restaurant were full of lively locals nattering amongst themselves. Granted, there wasn’t a tourist to be seen amongst the crowds, and for that reason Daan and I felt quite conspicuous within the setting. So much so that we ducked a little lower in our chairs each and every time the Guardia Civil did a slow drive through the plaza at regular fifteen minute intervals.
Eventually our bellies told us that it was time to eat, and so Daan asked an elderly gentlemen if he could recommend anywhere for food while grabbing a light from him at the same time. The gentleman mentioned a restaurant close by that came highly recommended and so, once our beers were finished, we wandered through the narrow laneways of the old town to find his recommendation. We were greeted at the door by the maitre’d who held his finger up at us as he navigated what seemed like a very intense phone conversation at the same time. His finger stayed in the air until much later when the conversation ended, and he finally showed us to the table. He apologised for the wait, explaining that the caller had recently recommended his restaurant to a couple of peregrinos and to be on the lookout for them. We chuckled at the serendipity of the moment and were satisfied once more that we’d made the right decision to stay in Ourense.
The meal was indeed a fantastic one, and was enhanced further by fantastic wine and fantastic service. Suffice to say we were enjoying the moment so much that one bottle of wine became two, and then the second bottle of wine turned into a wander back through the laneways to a rather lively looking bar. We sat outside on the terrace under a heater and yarned for the remaining hours of the evening, punctuated by unknowable amounts of beer, more fantastic service from bar staff who were up for a yarn, and then inevitably Liqor de Heirbas.
Suffice to say that things got fuzzy around that point. Fuzzier still because it wasn’t simply one shot of Liqor de Heirbas. Nor was it simply two. The one recollection that I do have is being the last to leave the bar with Daan around midnight. Or was it 1am? Whichever it was it was the official time that the city’s curfew came into effect, which didn’t seem like much of a curfew to me at all. The bars and laneways had emptied out quickly leaving the cobbled streets empty of life except for myself and Daan. Decades old street lamps illuminated our path with a harsh golden light that made our way seem more like a well-constructed movie location than the real world. Perhaps the amount of alcohol we’d each just consumed helped add to that surreal quality of the return to the apartment.
I don’t remember arriving at my bed, but I do remember a sense of elation that we had had such an opportunity to indulge in Ourense. It was an opportunity that wasn’t meant to happen, if we’d believed all of media reports we’d been privy to over the previous week. But it was done now, and it had been done memorably. And now, with only three days ahead of us until Santiago de Compostela, we were on the home stretch.