A Ponte to Bandeira
Saturday October Seventeen, 2020
Our penultimate day began in the dark, with a strange sombreness at play in my head. I woke and went about the daily motions required to prepare for each day of walking. I sat on the bed and placed a selection of Band Aids on my feet at various angles to one another. In many cases the Band Aids were being positioned over the exact same areas of my feet that I’d placed them six weeks earlier when I’d first set off from Seville – such was the persistence of my many, many blisters. The familiar routine was now so well-rehearsed that it had turned into a meditation of sorts, and had made me more familiar with my feet than I’d ever been before.
In addition to the daily application of Band Aids I had added an array of extra ministrations to my morning routine. There was the gentle rubbing of the medicine woman’s Dolor salve over my shins, calves and feet to magically relieve the pain I felt in those tender locations (and believe me, it really did work). There was a vague gingerbread aroma to the ointment that took me back to some childhood moment of joy and filled me with a wonderful calm. And then there was the careful bandaging of my ankle and shin to alleviate the jarring pain felt there – rolling out the gauze around and around, and around again. There was also a fifteen minute regimen of stretching and faux yoga to complete before the day was begun. Oh, and I can’t forget to mention the recent addition of cortisone cream to my routine, which I was now applying generously to the bed bug bites covering so many parts of my body.
The entire ritual was by now so well-rehearsed that I could have completed in successfully in a pitch-black room without any hesitation.
The other notable additions to my morning routine at this late stage of the Camino were layers. Layers of clothing, that is. It’s fair to say that on the penultimate day of my journey I was wearing significantly more items of clothing than I had on those first days and weeks of the Via de la Plata. Short shorts and a tee-shirt were the only items required all those weeks beforehand. Oh, and a wide-brimmed hat, of course, to keep the blazing sun off of my head and face. But now, towards the second half of October, in the Galician autumn, I rarely left for the day without thermal socks, long trousers, a tee-shirt, jumper, jacket and a woollen beanie to boot.
The human frame that those layers of clothing were bundled around had evolved dramatically also. The slightly beer-bellied, London-living form I’d arrived in Spain with back in early September had transformed ever so slowly throughout my journey. Mine was now a lean and sinewy body, with a sturdy core, and weighing a good five kilograms less than it had before I’d begun.
Suffice to say that plenty of things had changed over the previous six weeks.
Plenty, except for those blasted blisters.
Daan and I shared a sugary breakfast and coffee downstairs in the bar of the hotel beneath harsh strip lighting that jolted our consciousness into the day more violently than necessary. We shared cheery banter as we braced ourselves for the forty-five kilometre day ahead, which would see us arrive in Bandeira by its end. We were excited by the challenge of such a long day so close to the end of our Caminos. In typical boy-ish style we saw the completion of such a considerable distance as a mark of distinction and acclaim. So, despite the niggle of sombreness moping about in the back of my brain, my spirits were high as we bid farewell to our hostess and stepped out into the fresh morning air surrounded by darkness.
Our first objective was to return to the path of the Camino. We had deviated from the true path by a couple of kilometres the previous afternoon due to a lack of open accommodation along our route. My next objective was to get my damned headtorch working as we walked through the dark, but the bloody thing refused to play nicely with me, much to my annoyance. Somewhere deep in the recesses of my pack was a wind-up torch that I’d bought from Decathlon weeks beforehand (perhaps in Salamanca) for just such an occasion. But it had been so long since Daan and I had left before sunrise that the torch had been forgotten about and might have been hidden anywhere in the pack. So the two of us moved along the shoulder of the road in the dark, our path lit only by the single beam of light coming from Daan’s own headtorch. It helped that the road was straight, and the tarmac flat, and that there wasn’t any hint of traffic driving along it so early in the day.
The sun was just beginning to cast a dull presence over the world when our route finally took us from the side of the road and off into a small forest. It’s subtle illumination was well timed and well received as the terrain underfoot changed from the level tarmac to an uneven, root grown and rutty surface within just a few steps of the suns arrival. The sudden shift in terrain set a precedence for the remainder of the day’s journey and the landscape continued to shift again and again, providing a wonderfully mixed bag of experiences. Forest became farmland and farmland became forest once more, transitioning at regular intervals as the morning progressed. And all the while little villages would appear from out of nowhere to surprise and delight us.
We stopped for a second breakfast at Café Fraga in Dozón because, well because we felt like we could do with a second breakfast. It was entirely justified in light of the many kilometres still ahead of us, or so we told ourselves. The morning was still grey, with a cold wind whipping across the landscape and the threat of rain hanging about in the air. So to feel a little warmer deep down in my soul (and to double down on an energy boost) I ordered both an espresso and hot chocolate (Cola Cao of course) and combined the two to create a mochaccino. It had become something of a ritual over the previous couple of weeks, no thanks in part to the very autumnal ambiance that Galicia in October was generating.
With our bellies now full again, and a feeling of warmth once more enveloping us, we set off onto the Camino which now followed a major road away from the village. The wind had really picked up at this point, to a blustery crescendo, which wasn’t helped by a thick wall of rain that we could see racing in from the distance. I stopped and unpacked my poncho to protect myself from my rain and remain dry, only to be driven mad by the flap, flap, flapping of the waterproof fabric instead.
We finally made our way off the main road and back into a more serene setting, alternating once more between forest and farmland. At one point we even adopted a fellow peregrino in the form of a beautiful ginger cat. Well, a kitten really. It appeared out of nowhere in the middle of the woods, crying for attention and making a hell of a fuss of the two of us. The mystery of where it had come from confounded us, as we really were in the middle of nowhere, with no farmland, farm buildings or houses to be seen. We made the mistake of stopping and crouching down to show it some affection affection, which the cat then took as an invitation to climb up into my arms for even more engagement. All the while it meowed and meowed, and meowed some more.
There was certainly a sense of despair in its cries, which made it all the harder to put it back on the ground and continue on our travels. The kitten was having none of that though and insisted on following us for at least another kilometre until we arrived at a small outcropping of farm buildings. It continued crying for attention all the way, in the most heart-breaking manner. We hoped that the farm was a potential home for it, but then panicked when a large farm dog suddenly came into view. We were certain that it would make a meal of such a small feline, but the dog made little fuss of the desperate creature and after a quick sniff carried on about its business. Relieved, we hurried along, finally losing our feline companion in the derelict out-buildings.
We eventually reached a small milestone of sorts in the form of a marker announcing that we had another fifty kilometres to go until Santiago de Compostela. A mere fifty kilometres! Such a trifling distance remaining seemed almost impossible for me to comprehend when I considered those first steps back in Seville with a grand total of one thousand kilometres ahead of me. The fact that nine hundred and fifty kilometres had already been walked still felt somewhat abstract to me. Almost as if it hadn’t been me who’d left from the Catedral de Sevilla all those weeks before. And in some ways it really was a different person who’d ended up just fifty kilometres from Santiago de Compostela. A different person both physically and mentally.
The day continued at pace, with a wonderful momentum at play that propelled us forward along the path. It was helped by the fact that at every turn there was something new to marvel at as the landscape continued to shift and morph around us. We even encountered a pair of impossibly pretty horses and then met a particularly affectionate dog who was more than happy for me to reach through the fence and pet her neck. She seemed very keen on the attention I gave her, and didn’t bark at us once – a true rarity amongst Spanish dogs who had all tended to be aggressive and territorial in our experiences.
The real highlight of the day however was Ponte Taboada, an impossibly old stone bridge originally built in 912 CE. It crossed a narrow ravine with crystal clear water running beneath it, and was surrounded by dense trees in the throes of autumnal shades. If I had encountered fairies or elves, or trolls or goblins in that magical setting I wouldn’t have been the least bit surprised, such was the fairy-tale quality it imbued. No knights or maidens fair appeared out of the dense woods either, but the timeless quality of the bridge and its surrounds made sure to fire my imagination and double check within the shadows, just to be sure.
I paused at a small church to undress a little and rest my feet for a while. More specifically, rest my left shin, which was still playing up long after its initial grumble back in Ourense. It was the first time during my six weeks of travelling that I’d succumbed to the aches and pains of my body and given it a decent respite by way of a rest. I pulled my shoes and socks off and let them breathe for half an hour or so while I reclined on a park bench beneath a stone statue of St James. He watched over me as I closed my eyes and took in the sounds around me. I may, or may not have, dozed for a moment of two, but eventually I realised my time was up and begrudgingly reapplied my socks and shoes to continue on my way with my wayward shin feeling no calmer with each step.
I caught up with Daan again about an hour later and we kept a decent pace together right through to Bandeira, having skipped Silleda for want of some finality to our day. Also, Silleda seemed slightly grim and industrial to us after so many wonderful pockets of woodland and farmland that the rest of the day had offered up. And so we agreed to give it a miss and pushed on through, without another coffee stop. We marched confidently instead towards our destination, coveting the well-deserved beers and warm beds that would meet us there.
Coming into Bandeira we received a chorus of cheerful honks from passing motorists, which was a wonderful welcome to receive. Each honk brought a smile to my face and a quick beat of joy to my heart. They were the automobile version of a clap, and after forty-five kilometres of striding in just under eight hours they felt well earned. They also distracted me from the reality of what Bandeira represented – one more resting place before our final destination. One more stamp in my credencial. One more dinner with Daan at my side. One more bed to climb into with waves of satisfaction and gratification coursing through my thoughts as well as my body.
We arrived at the hotel just as fatigue was beginning to set in, but we didn’t bother to check in right away, choosing instead to sit outside on the terrace and make the most of a couple of very well deserved beers. They were ordered in quick succession and downed with gusto, despite their ice-cold temperature. We were both exhausted, but we were equally ecstatic about such a milestone being reached. Not only were we just one sleep away from Santiago but we had completed our longest day yet. It wasn’t quite the fifty kilometres that Daan and I had aspirations about achieving before reaching Santiago, but it was close enough. And to be perfectly honest, I’m not sure that my body had another five kilometres in it that afternoon. It was well and truly ready to settle in for the night with more cold beer and a hearty meal of hot food.
Our host checked us in, stamped our credencials and gave us the keys to our rooms. We made our way up a seemingly unnecessary number of stairs with our backpacks in tow, towards one of the top floors of the hotel. Why we were accommodated so high up is beyond me as we were the only guests for the evening and could’ve had any number of rooms on the lower floors. But our calves and thighs persevered nonetheless and made the steady climb up to well-proportioned, heated and clean rooms. The bathrooms were the same size again as the bedrooms, and so hot, hot, hot showers were enjoyed before a brief snooze and then a descent back downstairs to the restaurant.
With just thirty-five kilometres ahead of us until we reached Santiago there was an odd mood sitting at the dinner table with us. Part exhilaration. Part exhaustion. Part euphoric, and part subdued. The finality of it all was ever present, but at the same time it was nowhere near close to hitting me with its full might. There was still one more day to complete after all. One more sleep, and one more breakfast. Another solid collection of hours putting one foot in front of the other. Again and again, and again.
I was waiting for that finality to really hit me, with a WOW moment of sorts. A real wallop of sentiment. But it didn’t come over dinner. And it didn’t come as I traipsed back up the stairs towards my room. It didn’t come when I put myself to bed either. Perhaps I was overthinking the whole thing and expecting too much from it all. Perhaps I’d watched too many films with too many happy endings involving epiphanies that reset the balance of the characters life. I kept returning to the idea that over five weeks beforehand I had been in Seville, and every meter since then had been achieved by foot. Every inch of those thousand kilometres had been physically engaged, no matter the weather or the state of my body or mind.
My head was still firing off a million thoughts a second as I pulled the bedding around me, trying to thread some sort of meaning into it all. But it was my exhausted body that took charge of the moment and relieved me of my busy brain. It felt the mattress beneath it and the bedding around it and took its cue to fall fast asleep within mere seconds of arriving.
My final sleep on the camino had been joined.