“It is good to have an end to journey toward; but it is the journey that matters, in the end.”
― Ursula K. Le Guin, The Left Hand of Darkness
Day Thirty-six: Portomarin – Os Valos (Hosteria Claixtino)
It was time to walk down those stairs. I had my left hand on Den’s shoulder, the right one on the top facing of the stone wall, Pam was behind me. Together we descended the ancient staircase in front of Portomarin. It took two minutes. We grouped, then crossed the intersection, and ambled over to the pavement running alongside the cliff. It was a short walk to the bridge over the Rio Torres, and the official start of today’s stage.
I could easily cast my mind back to the bridge, crossing it, the white building with two basement double forest-green doors, and matching window joinery. We turned left, on the bend ahead of us a white house, hanging on the cliff of the river. I have no memory recall, beyond this bend. Looking at the map, I expect it was an uphill trudge on forest tracks adjacent to the main road and the hamlet of Gonzar. Somewhere along the way, we encountered rain. I know this because I had taken photographs as we entered the next hamlet, Castromaior. An elegant white house, its front exterior covered by bushes of blue hydrangeas, had captivated me. As I looked at the photos, I could see rivulets of rain on the pavement. I was seeking to capture the fading glory of those hydrangea bushes. They were covered in large blooms, some at their peak while the flowers on other spikes are a multitude of faded blue.
On the outskirts is an ancient tree, which almost engulfs the narrow building beside it. As we had walked nearly 10 km, without a break, I imagine we were relieved to find out it was a café. In the front corner, beside a television was a roaring fire. We stripped off our outerwear, strung them over the spare chairs stacked near the fire, left them to dry. We ordered hot drinks and something to eat, from the friendly elderly lady behind the bar. When she rushed out the back to get some sweet-treats, instead of the imagined home-baking, she returned with a collection of store-bought goods, including Santiago cake.
There have been days on this trip where I remember every step, while other days, I struggle to recall. With the help of Google maps street view, I have dragged these memories out of a corner closet in my mind. Some memories, like parts of this day, were lost to fear. Like the playground bully, who knows your weak-spot, dangles it in front of you, taunting, teasing and making you want to disappear. Fear made me want to run-away from the pilgrim staircase in Portomarin. Yet in the end, the descent was effortless. And, I felt embarrassed Den and Pam thought they needed to rescue me. It was never the stairs. I go up and down stairs every day. It was the fear of falling, the fear of another camino injury. Whenever I need to conquer a situation, Ernest Hemingway’s line, “courage is grace under fire” springs to mind. I always imagine him delivering those words while holding a gun, aimed at someone, firing, missing on purpose, to obtain their mettle.
Leaving Castromaior there is a steady climb to Ventras de Narón. From here the way undulates over the Sierra Ligonde plateau. Pilgrims walking with wooden staffs through driving rain and mist intensified the bleak atmosphere of this terrain.
We descended on a narrow country road, into the ancient hamlet of Ligonde, its stone houses and ramshackle farm buildings a welcome change of scenery. Outside of Ligonde on a sharp bend, we took the recommended camino detour. On a sunny day, the rocky path would have been a breeze. Today, the water cascaded over jagged-edged rocks. The path was muddy and slippery. I made it upright, banishing most of my fear in the process.
We stopped at Bar-Restaurante Ligonde, on the outskirts of Airexe. Under its awning, we found a dry table in the middle of the stacked outdoor furniture and took off our sodden outerwear. There was an oil heater inside, which somebody had turned on. We shared the heating space with other walkers, also hoping to dry their shoes. After ordering lunch, I changed my socks and joined in the conversation about shoe makes and models, a hot topic on the camino.
We had another three or four kilometres to walk, across rolling country lanes. We hiked on, through the hamlet of Portos and Lestedo and into Os Valos. Despite the lack of heating and having to go outside to enter the dining room, Hosteria Calixtion was a welcome respite. We saw very few pilgrims on the track today.
Day Thirty-seven: Os Valos – Melide (El Molino)
We left around 7:30 am, through a side gate and made our way in the dim morning light, on a country road lined by trees on one-side, and paddocks edged with stonewalls on the opposite side. At Café Mesón Brea, the way diverts onto a woodland path. Fortuitously, after exiting, I stopped and turned around. I was rewarded with a view of a fiery-red sun rising above this majestic stand of trees.
As we hadn’t had breakfast, I was keen to reach Palas de Rei. This town, which appears to straddle a ridge, is bordered on one side by the main road. The road snakes around its centre then headed west. Our route cut through the middle of Palas de Reim on laneways and staircases. On the side of one of these shortcuts, we found a modern café, attached to an albergue to have breakfast.
Fortified with coffee and tostadas, we resumed our walk, exiting Palas de Rei. The camino crossed and rejoined the main road, N-547, several times. At the hamlet of Caraballal, the route veers off into the countryside, making its way through several hamlets and copses. These grooves of trees were mainly oak, trunks covered in sage-green, silvery lichen and branches which slant across the trail. The walking was joyous, although slightly hazardous as the track in places was a mudslide with deep puddles of water.
The 12th-century church in the hamlet of San Xulian looked like the ideal place to get our first stamp of the day. The doors were open. We were greeted by music, Hallelujah, appropriately matching my inner joy of walking without pain. Inside the Priest took our donations and stamped our passports. I sat on a wooden pew and absorbed the energy from this ancient house of worship.
At times we were the only people of the track, other times we followed in the wake of groups of pilgrims. The majority started at Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port or one of the major cities like Leon and now walked with a limp.
The highlight of my day occurred near Campanilla, my camino friend Christy saw me and in a movie moment, came running towards me and hugged me, like a long lost friend. Our paths crossed again on the mediaeval hump bridge near the village of Lobreiro.
At Furelos, we crossed the stunning mediaeval Ponte Velha, which lead us into the modern suburbs of Melide.
Then strolled on to the junction, where the camino route joins the main road, which runs through the centre of Melide. Pulperia A Garnacha, a famed pulpo (octopus) restaurant, is strategically situated here. We stopped to watch and listen to the owners hawking.
We walked on, then walked back, went inside the restaurant and ordered lunch.
Towards the end of the afternoon, we left the Pension, wandered through alleyways, up into the centre of Melide. It was chore time, we needed breakfast food, to replenish snacks, get cash then have an early evening meal. Except for larger towns and cities, the camino is a cash society. I liked to top-up my cash supply in a town or city. The noise of juggernauts, trucks and cars at the central roundabout was a formidable volume; almost deafening after the quiet of the country. On the streets, vans were unloading dozens of potted chrysanthemums. I have since found out the chrysanthemums “crisantemo” were for the Day of the Dead “Día de todos los Santos” which I believe, is observed on the 1st November in Galicia.
Day Thirty-eight: Melide – Salceda (Pensión Albergue Alborada)
Today’s route was slightly contentious. I had added up to kilometres in the guide book, while Den, had calculated the distance on Maps.me. They were very different. The guide book 22.1 km versus Maps.me at 28 km—both distances challenging for the walking wounded. Today was a balancing act of Den’s wish to walk at least ten kilometres into Santiago de Compostela and finding accommodation. The only explanation seemed to be the forest paths which on the map appeared to result in a straighter journey.
We had scoped the pathway out of Melide last night, accompanying Den to the end of Rúa Principal and the start of the country dirt track, with the promise of gelato before heading back to our pension. The gelato was delicious, and the morning exit seamless. The way, which undulated through a forest of undiscernible tree varietals in the early morning light, eventually joins the main road at Boente. We walked down the main road, then crossed over by the village church Iglesia de Santiago. Here we crossed the Río Boente and trekked on through countryside. We stopped in the small village of Castañeda, for a break at Café Bar Santiago. After coffee and a KitKat bar, we headed back out, along more country lanes before descended to Río Iso, over another mediaeval bridge and entering the delightful hamlet Ribadiso de Baixo.
Hiking on these narrow undulating country lanes, with simple, yet stately farmhouses, the oak and chestnut trees providing shade was dream walking. I strode on, oblivious to external factors until a photo moment would jolt me back to reality. After taking my photographs, I would wait for Pam and Den to catch up.
Looking back down the path to Ribadiso de Baixo, we regrouped and strolled into Arzúa. Here we stopped to take photos and detour off the track slightly to get our first daily stamp at the modern parish church, Parroquia de Santiago. The camino trail descends out of Arzúa over a stream then ascends somewhat on the path through ancient oak woods. I was unaware of a man sitting on a bench with a book and array of goods talking to another pilgrim as I strode on. When I reached a small hamlet, I stopped waited for Pam and Den. Ten minutes later, I started to fret. Several other pilgrims passed me, a few on bikes, the others on foot, I wasn’t lost. So I relaxed, ate my banana and waited. I had my phone switched to “airplane mode” and missed the text telling me the man at the beginning of the track, Jesus was offering flower and wax stamps in return for a donation towards his book, and asking me if I would like to walk back.
After I viewed the delicate wax stamps, we continued onto Preguntoño. Where we came across a café bar in a paddock – bright red chairs, white tables, some in a tent, others out the front, with white umbrellas for shade. We stopped for lunch. I had fried eggs, chorizo and salad. We were later joined by our Canadian camino friends who live in Singapore, Sharon and Glen. Sadly, I can’t remember where we first met.
After lunch, we trekked up a country lane then entered a tunnel under the N-547 before stepping back onto gravel woodland tracks.
The first one took us into the hamlet Taverna Velha past the thought-provoking ‘Wall of Wisdom.’
Then past this unusual track-side café.
The sky had cleared, the temperature was rising, and the layers of clothing stuffed into packs. We were grateful for the shade; however, by the time we reached the hamlet of Boavista, my pace was reduced to a saunter. The saunter soon slowing to a snail’s pace as we made our way off the track and crossed over the N-547 to Pensión Albergue Alborada.
Our room was a bit on the small side, but beautifully furnished, and very restful. We also managed to do our laundry and get it dry. Later we walked through the Salceda to check out our dinner options. Glen saw us and invited us to join them for dinner at Casa Tia Teresa Bar-Pensión. An Australian couple from Alice Springs later joined us. Hard to believe this was our second to last evening on the camino. I celebrated with a Gin and Tonic. It was no ordinary G&T, the owner who looked like my Uncle Wal, put ice into the sizeable bulb-like glass, rubbed a lemon around the rim, then sliced off some rind. He burnt the rind, placed it inside the glass, covered it with a saucer and let it smoke for a few minutes. After free pouring the Hendrick gin, he pierced a tin of tonic water on the top, twice. Raising the container above his shoulder and lowering the glass, the tonic fell like a waterfall into the glass—pure theatre.
The food was just as spectacular. I had zamburiñas (scallops) plus a salad with queso (local cheese), quince jelly and walnuts, plus wine. We all wandered home, high on the camino spirit and tipsy on Galician wine.
Day Thirty-nine: Salceda – Lavacolla (Pensión Dorotea)
The penultimate day of my Camino Francés started with breakfast at Casa Tia Teresa – coffee, toast and Galician honey. The Alice Springs couple arrived. They had started the day off by watching scenes from the movie The Way. We all agreed it was a great way to kick-start the day.
We left Salceda around 7:30 am on a woodland path, which abruptly finished on a hairpin bend of the main road, the blazing rising sun served as a natural warning sign.
We quickly crossed over and joined the pathway which follows the N-547, then crossed beneath it and onto a country lane past the stylish-looking Marela Cantina, into the hamlet of Brea. Then continued walking either side of the N-547 through woodland paths, into underpasses, then through hamlets, all the way into O Empalme.
Later on, we took the natural pathway detour, which finished near the serene hamlet of Santa Irene. I stopped and photographed a stone house with autumn burgundy flowering hydrangeas, then an old oak tree, ablaze with golden, rust and copper leaves.
The track then descends into the outskirts of O Pedrouzo and a mural wall. Here we took the bypass, a dense eucalyptus forest stretching to San Antón, then entered the Rio Amenal valley, and strolled along a country lane back towards the N-547. Just before the track enters the underpass and starts to zig-zag around the Lavacolla Airport is Pensión Bar Kilómetro 15, making the ideal place to get our first daily stamp and a rest.
On the other side of the airport, we stopped at the ancient hamlet of San Paio, as we had wanted to stay here, at Pensión The Last 12K. Unfortunately, the pensión was closed for the night.
The steep climb from the Rio Amenal to the forest track around the perimeter of Santiago’s international airport, Lavacolla, challenged my foot.
I ambled into Lavacolla with Cathy, a lady we had met in Trabadelo at Albergue Susi. She was stopping for lunch and then walking onto San Marcos. Our accommodation was at the edge of this sleepy-looking town. Pensión Dorotea was located between Hostal San Paio. Nearby there was a restaurant full of local families gathered together for Sunday lunch. We were keen to join in but wanted to get rid of our backpacks. We clambered up what we thought were the stairs to the entrance to Pensión Dorotea entered, only to discover the door into the hotel corridor was locked. Collectively we decided to go over to the nearby restaurant. Pam and Dean found an empty table on the terrace and ordered wine. I was keen on lunch and joined Cathy in the old-fashioned dining room of the nearby Hostal San Paio.
After lunch, I rejoined Pam and Den on the terrace. Then spied the actual entrance to Pensión Dorotea. We went upstairs, found our keys hanging up on a keyboard, and located our room at the end of the hallway, near the back entrance. It was massive, tiled room, with a double bed by the back wall, besides it a round table and chairs. Near the entrance, beside a large bathroom, and behind the room-divider was a single bed. The room was freezing, and we couldn’t find any heating! As it turned out, we had underfloor heating, which was controlled by the hospitalero, who thankfully had arrived.
We had dinner with two other ladies we had met at Albergue Susi in the old-fashioned dining room of Hostal San Paio. It was a lovely evening but very sedate compared to last night.
Day Forty: Lavacolla – Santiago de Compostela.
I woke from a dream with the words, “It is impossible to finish a journey, like this one, as you started it,” ringing in my ears.
Pam and Den had wanted to finish today, as they had started, walking together and carrying their pack bags. I also wanted to walk into Santiago de Compostela alone and had decided to carry my pink backpack. I had taken it on the Camino Portuguese and used on this camino. Both times I needed to pad out the shoulder straps to prevent chafing. Porting this backpack also I felt, symbolised the need to leave something behind as an acknowledgement of change.
It was just after 7:00 am. I unpacked the pink pack, repacked my new daypack. Wished Den and Pam a Buen Camino and left them to finish their packing. I headed downstairs with both bags. I dropped off my pink backpack at reception, then walked out into the crisp morning air. The night sky was fading, providing enough light to walk up the steep tree-lined path to the village of Villamaior, without a headlamp. I navigated my way through the narrow lanes of this village. At the end of the laneway, I saw Casa de Amancio. It seemed like the ideal place for breakfast. There wasn’t a breakfast menu, but they did have Santiago cake, freshly squeezed orange juice and of course, coffee. I sat alone, in a stone-walled dining room, and consumed a sugar-filled breakfast.
From here the path continued to undulate along a mountain crest. Rain clouds began to gather overhead as I walked into the village of San Marcos. I stopped and geared up for rain. A few minutes later, while making my way up to Monte de Gozo, the rain pelted down. I stopped briefly at this modern monument.
Thankfully, as I descended down into the outer suburbs of Santiago de Compostela the rain eased. Ahead of me, there was a steady stream of pilgrims. I
I had taken this route virtually so many times, and once on that fated Camino Portuguese trip by taxi. Entering through Porta de Camiño and making my way, on foot, through the maze of streets, alongside other pilgrims, was priceless. I didn’t want to rush. I wanted to savour the moment.
I had my photograph taken in front of the Cathedral, then walked over and congratulated Pam and Den. They asked me to take pictures of them in front of the Cathedral. Then they suggested that we go together to get our Compostela and Distance Certificate (799 km). It seemed fitting. We had a celebration lunch together then said goodbye.
As I walked toward my hotel, I passed a lady in a wheelchair, holding crutches and wheeled by a man, I blurted out “that was me three years ago.” To quote my cousin Chrissy, “Camino Finito…but in the best possible way this time.”
— Finito —