The bed bugs were closing in.
The chattering about bites was getting louder and albergues had started to hand out plastic covers for mattresses. I had been using a pyrethrin-impregnated cover on every mattress since I started but knew it was just a matter of time before my luck ran out.
And at La Faba they were far too close for comfort. I heard an American girl complain to the staff in the morning that she had been bitten, pointing out the telltale four red lumps in a line on her arm. The rest of us cautiously rolled up our sleeping bags, wondering what we might be transporting to our next stop.
But what a great, hospitable place La Faba had been. This borderland with Galicia meant more rain so the hillsides were green and tranquil around the small, hot villages down in the Valcarce valley and the little rivers clean and sparkling. The views above our heads were spectacular too, in part because of the unbelievable intrusion of the motorway high above the towns and trees.
We enjoyed a superb evening at the bar-restaurant just along from the German-run albergue with some great folk including John from Chicago and Ed and Linda from Boston.
But the weather was breaking. Storms were forecast and we had the rest of the mountain to climb first thing in the morning. Bed bugs or not, it was time to rest.
We didn’t often stop for a proper lunch but today, after 25 hot and not entirely pain-free kilometers, we threw off our packs and sat down at a street table in Cacabelos and ordered tapas: juicy mussels, potato croquettes, bread, water (with painkiller) and wine. Mmmmm. The waitress brought us a complementary bag of ripe figs from the garden too and those we ate at the table were delicious. The others didn’t travel too well.
The food slowed us down so it felt like a hard slog through the endless vineyards where workers were harvesting grapes, past a sculpture workshop and its strange colourful work outside and finally into Villafranca where we searched in vain for the “albergue with nice gardens”. Turned out it had been burned down and the gardens abandoned to weeds.
The last albergue on the outskirts of town was “completo” but Libia, the young co-owner served us tea and biscuits while she called around local guest houses and hotels. Everything was full, apart from the “boutique” hotel, Las Doñas back down by the bridge.
So… the choice was between heaving on our packs and limping on to the next town 12m away or succumbing to white sheets, a bathroom with toiletries, clean fluffy towels and an all singing-dancing shower. Tough decision.
I met an old man in the street later that evening who was anxious to point out a plaque on a house marking the birthplace of the Spanish “famoso” poet, Enrique Gil y Carrasco. We conversed for some time (despite my limited Spanish) about national poets, I heard about the pride he felt about this native son and he listened to a wee bit of Robbie Burns right there in the fading light of the pilgrim way. We parted with great affection and hand shaking.
It’s moments like these that make the camino unforgettable.
We climbed to just below 5000ft this morning, all the way up to the simple iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro, and the last 500ft or so took forever as I kept turning round to watch the sun rising behind and below the highest point of the whole camino.
Thousands of pilgrims have left stones or tokens here so we clambered over the rough rocky track to the base of the cross for photographs then lingered on this glorious early morning as the sun grew higher in the sky. It was downhill then for the next 20km and having climbed so far and so high I was reluctant to leave the mountains.
Suzanne and I took the steep path together down through the bushes and trees and paused to look in at the settlement at Manjarin, a romantic, hippy mountain hut of wind chimes, water and organic teas.
The plan had been to walk to Ponferrada but after so long on such wonderful (but blistering hot) sheltered tracks through the valley we didn’t want to spend a night in a city so turned in instead to the Santa Marina albergue on the outskirts of Molinaseca. Proper single beds and a (not very efficient) washing machine were our reward and later we enjoyed a quiet dinner with lots of wine and laughter at a balmy outside table by the old stone bridge.
But then ensued the “war of the windows”, with the Dutch, Scots and Canadians opting for fresh air and the French contingent desiring no draughts. How we conform to our national stereotypes!
I fell asleep before it was resolved. I could still walk and nothing else mattered.
I had been lucky. For three weeks I had been overtaking pilgrims limping in agony with damaged tendons or infected blisters. I’d listened to accounts of bed bug bites, strains, shin splints and knees that just couldn’t take any more. I’d seen boots abandoned by the roadside. And some injuries were so bad people had been hospitalized or had to go home.
The solitary blister on the little toe of my left foot had been a slight inconvenience for a few days and I’d doctored it by adding layer after layer of Compeed as protection. Today, though, the pressure was growing and there was no longer enough space in my boots to comfortably contain the swelling.
I limped to Santa Catalina de Sonoza for our first stop then stumbled on to the cowboy café at El Ganso. Cowboys always bring a smile to my face!
But when we reached Rabanal (after 21k) I sank down on the doorstep of the grocery shop and really wanted to stop for the day. However my companion insisted we stick to the plan and so we set off limping up the long hill towards Foncebadón another 6km away.
Suddenly I felt the blister that comprised my entire little toe explode in my boot! I could walk no further.
I peeled off my boots and socks then explored the mushy mess at the end of my foot then rummaged frantically in my pack: the only option was to wear my sandals with many socks and the strap as loose as possible. What relief – it worked!
Walking was slow though and there weren’t many beds left by the time we arrived in Foncebadón, but we didn’t end up sleeping down in the sheds beside the goats like the people who arrived even later.
There was no warm water so the cold shower was a short, refreshing one; the beers were chilled, the communal meal delicious and the vino tinto made an excellent painkiller before bed at 8.30pm.
Blister? Ah, that would be tomorrow’s problem.
I assumed it was a pain-induced mirage when a cart serving drinks, fruit, organic muesli and biscuits materialized on the top of a hill in the middle of nowhere. Maybe I’d just been walking for too long.
Maybe the lack of breakfast away back in Santibanez was affecting my reasoning. Could a beautiful, bronzed, barefooted man really be providing sustenance for pilgrims in exchange for a donation?
But David was real and lived up there in the ruins of an old farmstead most of the year. And gentle David had a message for the world:
“Ego destruction, love construction” was his mantra.
It wasn’t far (and all downhill) to the town of Astorga where we needed to do some sightseeing and shopping. This town had Gaudí architecture and we needed toothpaste, shampoo and, most importantly of all, a fleece. We’d be heading up into the mountains soon and I needed something warm for the early mornings.
It was market day so we ploughed through the crowds then somehow became ensconced at a café table in Plaza Catedral for hours, drinking cervesas surrounded by the turrets of Gaudí’s Bishops Palace and Astorga cathedral.
Many friends stopped by: Suzanne, Lisette, Nathan and Carmen. Then we explored the museums and cathedral before finding bunks in the municipal albergue.
The day ended with a happy dinner, rested feet and a cozy fleece to wear in the morning. All was well with the world.
Oh, it was a long haul: 43km no less on a hot day and with an increasingly bad blister on my little toe. I left León alone just after 6, following a group of around 10 pilgrims as they negotiated their way through the suburbs in the dark, then headed out over moorland to Mazarife where (after 20km) I had the best breakfast ever: tostada with butter and marmalade, zumo de naranja , café and limonada. I sat on a terrace enjoying the ambiance with a couple from North West Territories when along the road wandered Richard. I had vowed the last time we talked that I was having a rest day.
“Have you taken the bus?” he asked incredulously as he sat down to join us. The crack was good and I was tempted to have an easy day but an email told me the team would stop and wait for me in Santibanez. Another 20km lay ahead. I laced up my boots.
Just when I was wearying I rounded a corner to find another pal, Patrick at a cafe table having a late lunch. We talked for an hour, I rehydrated on sparkling water then we walked together to Hospital de Orbigo, then just after we crossed the beautiful long bridge he peeled off to find a bed. I walked alone then under the searing sun, limping and aching through the endless fields of maize and through a wood until I finally saw Santibanez below me. That’s where I paused and savoured the moment.
Swedish Helen welcomed me as I entered the albergue covered in sweat and dust. My feet were massaged and I washed my clothes as I showered in the outside facilities. We enjoyed a delicious communal meal of salad, risotto and melon then sat in the garden listening to songs on an ipod till late with Helen, Donald, Sander, Simon, Anna and Nicoli.
It wasn’t until it was all quiet in the packed dorm that we heard it – the constant pitter-patter of very tiny feet. We shone the torch under the bunks: it wasn’t a rat or a mouse and it stopped dead in the light of the beam, so we left the torch shining in its eyes and finally fell asleep. We were never able to identify the mysterious hamster-sized “critter” which gratefully escaped back to the garden when a roommate opened the door in the morning.
Tomorrow would need to be an easier day.
It was Sunday afternoon and León was alive and bustling with bicycles, the streets clogged with wheels inexpertly manned by helmeted tiny children, fussing parents, old grannies – cyclists of all ages, ready for the off on an outing, or race of sorts. There was a great sense of excitement and fiesta and we found it hard to find a way through – or find a way at all actually – to the Santa María de Carbajalas Convent where we were segregated for the first time. Men to one side, women to the other.
It wasn’t late and Richard and I had walked only 25km or so but I was totally whacked when I arrived, lying down on my narrow bunk by the window and closing my eyes just the way I was: sweaty, dusty, exhausted, drained. Finally I had a shower, changed into clean clothes and wandered wearily into the street to find a table at a café where I sipped a sedate vino tinto and just watched the weekend city world wander by.
Finally I explored a little and found León Cathedral, a beautiful 13th century gothic structure that was satisfyingly simple. My German friend Andreas turned up as I sat admiring it on a bench outside and we walked round together listening to audio guides in different languages. The original architecture had been fundamentally flawed and the cathedral had gone through some hair-raising remedial work in the 18th century when its very survival was at stake. What I found fascinating about this building was that only 5000 people lived in León at the time of the original construction yet they were able to fund such an ambitious project. There’s an statue of a pregnant virgin Mary here too, which isn’t something you see too often!
Andreas claimed he knew a great tapas bar at the other end of town so we plodded off there, down endless streets (and past countless other tapa bars!) only to discover it was closed. So we sat down at the neighbouring one, drank wine, ate delicious “tapas variados” and communicated surprisingly well for the rest of the evening considering I can’t speak german and he has limited english! The wine undoubtedly eased translation.
It had been a great day. I had forgotten my exhaustion and weariness and lay down in my bunk that night believing I could tackle the exceptionally long haul the next day if I was going to catch up with other friends many, many miles ahead.
Morning would tell.