Ourense to A Ponte
Friday October Sixteen, 2020
With only three days left ahead of us until Santiago de Compostela you might have imagined an air of exuberance about Daan and I as we departed Ourense. But alas, that wasn’t the case. Certainly not after the ample amount of alcohol we’d consumed the night before.
My body woke early, as it did each morning, but my head was much slower out of the gates. I faffed about the apartment in a strange fugue state, repacking my increasingly full bag, until Daan eventually woke, and we headed downstairs for breakfast. The Praza Maior was desolate so early in the day, and chilly no less, but it provided us with coffee, orange juice and plenty of pastries, which we consumed greedily on the terrace of a café. Neither of us were quite ready for the day, and so we doubled down on coffee, and even more pastries, while we sat and watched the square waking up around us. Eventually we pulled the pin on our lethargy and stood to finally fasten our packs, apply our obligatory face-masks and ready ourselves for the day’s walk.
It was only when I stood up from the table that I thought to myself I might still be drunk. I certainly didn’t feel hungover like I rightfully should have after so much alcohol the night before. But my hands shook a little as I strapped up and my body swayed about a little as the weight of my pack settled on my back. It was enough to imply my blood alcohol levels were still rather high, which was not a great sign for the walk ahead. I parked any thoughts of despair though and carried on my way.
Our first order of the day (besides coffee and pastries of course) was to have our Credential stamped. We had not been able to find a religious site to stamp our passport the night before and so took ourselves to the Tourist Information Centre in the middle of the city to have our visit to Ourense noted. The youth behind the counter seemed happy to have some custom for the day, which I imagine was in short supply within a locked down city, and he greeted us warmly with fantastic English. Daan was quick to launch into a story about how we had walked from Xunquiera de Ambia earlier that morning, so as not to give away the fact that we had stayed illegally overnight in the city. The attendant informed us that this had been a wise move, considering there was no accommodation to be had in Ourense owing to the Lockdown. Little did he know…
With our Credentials stamped we headed back out onto the city streets and began to follow the markers that would lead us out of Ourense. The morning was well advanced already and the pavements were bustling with commuters on their way to work. We navigated the crowds with dexterity and, while the temperature wasn’t exactly warm, I certainly managed to work up a sweat as we went. It was no doubt a series of hot flushes, brought about by my blood alcohol level. Despite my discomfort we moved at pace, keen to get a wriggle-on after dawdling for the best part of the morning, and keen to leave the sprawl of Ourense behind us.
Daan stopped briefly at a bakery for some more sustenance, while I soldiered on ahead through a busy commercial district that showed very few signs of a global pandemic taking place. Other than face-masks and queues at storefronts there was still an abundance of both pedestrian and car traffic moving through the city. Even road workers continued with their day-to-day duties and seemed to be busy jack-hammering concrete at every turn, much to the displeasure of my head.
About fifteen minutes after leaving Daan behind my phone started buzzing and I picked up a call from him that bore bad news. We had taken a wrong turn quite some time ago, and we were heading the wrong way out of the city. The route we had picked up on was the cycling route, which left through the north-west of the city. Our pedestrian route would require backtracking a good fifteen minutes so that we could make our exit from the north-east of the city instead. At any other point along the Camino the news would have felt like a very minor detail, but under the influence of so much alcohol it escalated inside of my head into a full-blown travesty, of epic proportions. It wasn’t helped by the narrow sidewalks, crowded as they were with pedestrians. Nor was it helped by the fact that the city never seemed to end, and that until we were beyond the city limits I had to keep my mask on as we walked.
On any other day I might have been able to talk myself out of the mood I was now so deeply entrenched in, but the circumstances along the correct route out of Ourense didn’t lend themselves to an emotional turnaround unfortunately. Not only was my body clammy and just a little bit stinky, but my face was damp and itchy behind my mask as I gasped my way along the city pavements. Oh, and then there was the fact that the departure from Ourense required an ascent that did not let up. The correct route began with a climb, and then continued to climb, before climbing some more still. And then, once we’d finally reached the edge of the city, the angle of the climb took itself up a notch or two (or three or four) and proceeded to carry us skyward away from the city.
I arrived at a small stone chapel high above the city, unmasked myself frantically and gasped enough air back into my lungs to feel vaguely normal for the first time all day. I was sweaty and I was flustered. I was smelly and I was cranky. But the view out over the valley beneath me was sensational and it stretched on for miles and miles to the south, giving me a wonderful sense of where I’d come from the day before. It was certainly a much more picturesque departure from Ourense than the arrival had been a day earlier through tarmac roads and industrial estates. I said goodbye to the extraordinary view of the city below me and turned to continue the epic climb away from the valley below.
At this point I need to make a confession. The thing is, despite being so close to our destination, with only two more full days of walking ahead of us, I remember very, very little of the day, except for how it began and how it ended. The filling in the middle isn’t even a blur to me. There’s simply nothing there. Not even photos from the day are able to help fill in the gaps. Such was my incredibly simply, yet ferociously strong, desire to finally finish walking for the day. Actually, to make yet another confession, my head was filled with the incredibly simple, yet ferociously strong desire to finish the Camino itself. Full stop.
From Ourense there was still in excess of one hundred kilometres to walk until Santiago de Compostela. So, for your average pilgrim, this distance would usually be measured out nicely across four, or even five, days, which is certainly a sensible approach. Daan and I however had decided to break the remainder of our journey up into just three more stages, meaning that we would arrive in Santiago on Sunday.
Our logic to complete the journey in just three more chunks wasn’t brought about by bravado, or ego, or even any personal physical challenge. Our logic was brought about primarily out of sheer panic. Panic because there was still constant chatter in the media about Santiago going into Lockdown and pilgrims being unable to complete their Caminos. And if that wasn’t concern enough there was panic also about an impending weather bomb that was threatening to explode over Santiago the following Monday. With the weather bomb was promised rain, and a tonne of it, which neither of us were too thrilled about. And if you’ve ever had any experience with Galician rain you’ll know that it’s not to be trifled with. Neither of us wished to arrive at our final destination sopping wet and cranky, with chaffing seams and ice cold noses. No, we wanted to arrive with blue skies overhead, and warmth on our skins, as well as the promise of a sunlit terrace with ice cold beer at the ready.
And so we had made the call to break the remaining journey down into a thirty kilometre day, a forty-five kilometre day and finally a thirty-five kilometre day. It was definitely not the sedate meander of a typical peregrino ambling into Santiago, but needs must, and we were confident that our ambitious schedule would help us beat not only the threatened Lockdown but the promised weather bomb as well.
All of this meant that my head was already in Santiago, rather than present there on the journey towards the sacred site itself. We passed through Cudeiro, Tamallancos, Bouzas, Sobriera and then Viduedo and Casas Novas before arriving at Cea. And yet for all of the villages we passed through that afternoon I can recall no detail about any of them. My brain had skipped a step and was focussed instead on what Santiago meant to me. The stone bridges and the streams, and the low autumn light and autumnal shades on the trees all went by unnoticed.
At Cea we had the choice of continuing our Camino to the right of the village, or continuing to the left of the village. Both routes led on towards Castro Dozon, where they eventually met. The route to our right was considered the official Camino while the route to our left was the unofficial and shorter version. The purists in us would certainly have taken the official route if it was available to Daan and I, but as well the potential Lockdown and the impending weather bomb we still had the ongoing problem of accommodation, or the lack thereof. There were no albergues or guest houses open along the official right-handed route. And even the left-hand route wasn’t showing an awful lot of promise when it came to places to rest our heads.
Daan eventually found a hotel about a kilometre off the Camino that was still open for guests, just beyond Arenteiro, and so he booked us a room each by phone as we walked. The sun was particularly low in the sky by the time we finally reached the hotel, which existed in the world all on its own, except for a small petrol station across the road from it. It seemed to have been forgotten by commuters, tucked away as it was on a now forgotten stretch of tarmac that had been superseded by a large motorway some 500m away.
I arrived shortly ahead of Daan, relieved to have put the seemingly endless (yet forgettable) day behind me. Our hostess greeted me warmly and offered up an ice cold beer which I accepted gladly, despite my earlier hangover. I took the beer with me to an outside table where the late afternoon temperature was a close approximation to the temperature of the beer itself. Beer really shouldn’t have played a part in my day, considering the volume of alcohol that had been consumed the night before, but it went down a treat nonetheless and so I ordered another just as Daan arrived.
After beer and hot showers (and then more beer back in the bar) we adjourned to the vast dining room where we were once more the only guests sitting beneath the blinding fluorescent lights and the blaring television set. Our hostess took our order and then pottered back towards the kitchen to proceed with cooking it for us. She reappeared minutes later with our starters and placed them on the table in front of Daan and I. Without a word she then sat herself down at the table alongside the two of us to take in the evening news on the television set mounted to the wall above. She waited until we had finished our first course before standing and collecting the plates from the table before disappearing off into the kitchen once more.
The evening news had contained further word of the threatened Lockdown in Santiago as well as the weather front heading our way. We quietly reassured one another that we’d made the right decision by fast-tracking our arrival and breaking down the final distance into just three days. And sure, that meant that the following day would be a forty-five kilometre journey, but we’d each done that before, so it wasn’t the most daunting of prospects. The reward would be a dry arrival, and a higher chance of Santiago being open for us.
Our hostess returned with our main meals and sat with us once more as we consumed them. She made small talk with Daan about the state of the world and how grim our new collective reality was. Daan concurred, but neither of us truly felt that grimness in our daily travels. Ours was a very different reality to that of our hostess who sat in one spot in a tiny corner of Spain watching an endless cycle of media news. Our reality over the past five weeks had been nothing like the one portrayed each day on the 24-hour news cycle. We had nearly walked the length of Spain after all, with only the barest of inconveniences thrown at us courtesy of Covid. We’d eaten and drunk on terraces throughout the centre of Spain, and drank espresso in dozens of pokey little cafes in between. Our jaws had dropped at an endless number of spectacular vistas and our days had ended (for the better part) with gracious hosts and ample hospitality.
Together we had gladly sidestepped Covid, and felt fortunate enough to have done so. The chipping away of liberties being felt more and more so by the population of Spain, Europe and the wider world seemed abstract to us. Our liberties in comparison seemed to have been expanded upon, courtesy of nothing more but our feet and our rather heavy backpacks.
By the end of the meal our day had well and truly caught up with us, not to mention the evening before. We made our way back upstairs to our rooms and said Goodnight to one another. With just two more days left of my five and a half week journey my brain was threatening to overload with a kazillion different thoughts and emotions. It was screaming out to be reflective, but I was terrified by the prospect of what might bubble to the surface. And so, to deflect from my dreaded feelings, I checked into the real world in one of the only ways I currently could. I left my room and took my phone to the end of the hallway to find a decent internet connection somewhere in the building. I found it at the top of the stairs and so logged myself on to Netflix and downloaded an episode of Star Trek Discovery. The first episode of the third season had been released earlier that day and, while being set in the far flung reaches of space, it nonetheless grounded me for a little less than an hour with the real world that existed beyond the Camino.