camino de santiago

I am awoken by the now familiar bag rustling and whispers of fellow pilgrims. I snuggle up under my blanket, relishing the last of my blissful slumber. No one has turned the lights on yet so I still have a few more minutes. From the bottom bunk I hear sean getting up and padding his way to the bathroom. One final stretch and the sleep is all gone. Yawning a smile to the german ladies I make my way to the loo, do what I have to do. Brush my teeth, ignore the bed head I am rocking and open the door to a hive of activity. Everyone is up in the corridor putting talc in shoes, vaseline on feet, wrapping up against the cold, checking torches, there are hugs of goodbyes and whispers of good luck for the day ahead. My hand still on the handle of the door, I wonder is there any where to hide. This albergue has been so wonderful I don’t want to leave. Maybe, I am not awake as I thought. Bags packed we head off to the church to fill our water bottles. We meet the Koreans and give each other the international nod of *Hey, its you! How are you, grand morning isn’t it?* Which in my mind is followed by *Can we get ahead of them today?* The impulse to get ahead of everyone has all but gone, but I feel there is some what of a friendly challenge between us and this family of people that we don’t know and yet have become fond of. We walk past the other bustling Alburges and have our first encounter with Mr Hungary. He asked if we have seen his friend, sadly we hadn’t and continue on our way. In my bubble of contentment I have forgotten why we wanted to press on yesterday. About ten minutes into the steep climb I am quickly reminded. Alto del Perdon is 790m (wait 2590 feet sounds much more impressive) above sea level. Walking in the dark in shorts at ridiculous o’clock has me totally grumpy. I figured shorts were the better option, but I have my fleece and body warmer on. I feel like a bag of microwaved steaming vegetables on frozen cold legs. Recipe for disaster surely. I will just worry about that when and if I have to. Just as we get to the top of Alto de Perdon, the sun is lifting its head over the horizon and casting the most beautiful shades of dusky pink through the wrought Iron Pilgrims. The wind turbines seem oblivious to the stunning scene before them as they churn and whoosh, standing tall and proud on the mountain side. Everyone stops for a kodak moment. We take the Koreans picture and they take ours. By the time we descend down the other side the sun is up. Going up was much easier! In the morning twilight we slide down the loose stone and scrubland. More than once I can see myself face planking the ground. Thankfully though this doesn’t happen. Our competition literally fly down the mountainside. Its okay though, I will catch up with them when we get to the flat land!

Two hours into our walk and it’s beginning to feel like coffee time. Sorely we are out of luck. In Uterga nothing is open yet. My tummy grumbles and we walk on to Óbanos. No coffee shops open here either. Its still really early and I don’t blame them. I would have a lay in too if I could. The one shop that is open in the square in front of church of St John, is totally jammers! I sit on the steps outside munching on a bar of chocolate… What? I need my energy, stop judging me! Anyway as I am having my *breakfast* I read the story of William, a duke who in a fit of rage killed his sister. She had apparently returned from her pilgrimage of the Camino and refused to go back to court and carry out the duties befitting of a Duchess. In fairness I can see her point. I can’t imagine life being the same when we go home. As you might suspect her brother is so saddened by what he has done he makes his own pilgrimage to Santiago and gives up all his worldly goods…. Drinking my coffee I shake the guide book. Apparently William becomes a saint and his skull is housed in the church in front of me. Why didn’t they house the rest of him in the church I ask Sean as we leave through the magnificent town arch. His face says its all really!

So I walked through this thing. My expression is would have been better explained if you could see the elderly spanish lady in her house coat, killing herself laughing and screaming something in Spanish. She followed us a while talking a million miles an hour and hands flying everywhere. Another mental note to learn spanish when we go home. She wanders off as we leave the town, and we seriously are none the wiser about the sculpture.

We walk through the very beautiful town of Puente la Reina. My neck hurts from looking up at all the beautiful old buildings. More elderly women in house jackets are gathered chatting away and pointing over at the menfolk sitting down in their daily best. I think some things never change no matter what age or nationality. Our breath is taken away as we cross over the romanesque bridge. We stand and watch as pigeons fly out from the nests in the arches. We stop at the other side as I have a stone in my shoe. Angelicia from last night walks past and tells us to go back and get a stamp from the tourist office. I thank her and doubt I will go back. We actually sit and have a conversation about the two minute walk *back* over the bridge. Its the most peculiar thing. After a few days of walking, mentally you will not want to go back over your steps. Santiago becoming like a homing beacon and every fiber of your being will rebel any idea of going in the opposite direction. We haven’t gotten any stamps today though as the coffee shops have been closed and we don’t know when we will stop next, so we go to the tourist office. Its my first time getting a stamp in one of these places and I think the lady behind the counter knows it. She ushers us forward with a big smile and waving arms. Like an aunty you haven’t seen in years would do. Proudly she stamps our credential and in broken english wishes us well on our adventure. I give her an extra wave when we leave.

Walking into the town of Cirauqui was beautiful. We didn’t bother with the camera, but the iPhone came in handy. The path was lovely and quiet, we passed our French friend who admitted she was a little under the weather after all the wine provided by our hosts last night. I really feel for her and I am glad of the copious amounts of water that we have been drinking. Hopefully I won’t do too much damage to my liver on this trip.

We stop at a bakery and get bread and fashion a sandwich of cured meats and cheese to eat on the corner of a square. We each take a bite and wash it down with the fizziest can of coke! We decide to have a picnic along the way so save the rest of the roll. It looks like they are setting up for a big festival, either that or they are recovering from a big festival. There are stalls about the place and in the square a main stage with some epic lighting equipment. We hesitate and wonder if we should stay. Today however, is the 16th of September. Its our fourth wedding anniversary and the idea of sleeping in a dorm tonight with 6 or 80 other people doesn’t appeal to me. Tonight I would like a bath, to be really properly clean. To dry my hair with a hairdryer until it’s straight and gleaming. To have dinner with my wonderful walking companion in life, share wine and sprawl out in a double bed made for two. The next big place with a hotel is Estella so we walk on in the now blistering heat!

We walk and walk. We can find no shade to sit and have this now not so romantic picnic. We consider just sitting on the roman path, which upon closer inspection is alive with ants. We could sit on our bags I venture, all too soon realising that our bags would be infested, quite frankly no one wants that. The hunger soon turns to being very hangry indeed. We stop and eat under an over pass. The breeze in the shade is icy cold and feels so so good. Pilgrims pass and compliment us on the good spot. The hanger fades and the smiles return. We chat about the next town and the excitement of having a bath! We clear the underpass and spy our fellow pilgrims dipping their feet in a stream eating their picnic. We smile and wave, grumbling under our breath. Ten more feet and that could have been us half an hour ago. No matter we will have our time to sit by a stream soon enough.

It seems we walked and walked for hours. By the time we reach Lorca I have cramps and personally I wouldn’t have wanted to be my walking partner. I am hot, cross and cranky. We stop into an albergue and get the biggest fizziest glasses of coke. Remember the really fizzy kind you used to get as a kid. The kind that made you burp so loud your body jumped in surprise! It was so refreshing. Sean asked if we should stay. I would say at this point he is more concerned for his own welfare. I am so determined to get that bath I refuse the peacemaking offer and say we should motor on. We refill our water bottles in the square. We bump into Alan who we met on our second night. Making sure the lid is secure I notice that the fountain doesn’t have the words “agua potable” meaning it’s drinking water. I empty the bottle and wonder if I am going to get scurvy. Alan says that one of the ladies sitting in the shade speaks spanish and she should know if we can drink the water. Some confusion ensues and we all stand there wondering what to do, when a spanish man informs us that yes we can drink the water. It turns out it comes from a spring and just hasn’t been treated the same way tap water would be. With a wave of relief I gulp back the water from the refilled bottle.

Today was always going to be a long one. We knew that when we left at 6.30 this morning. But when you are tired and weary and look to local signposts for moral support of the distance left, what you do not want to see is this sign. Our hearts soared when we saw that our walk was nearly at an end. How disappointed we were to be. Looking at the guide book we were informed that we had nearly 5k left to walk, down and then back up hill. I liken this moment to being a car or truck. The red fuel light has been on for a while now. You know you need to refuel. You hope that you can run on fumes long enough to reach your destination. Because honestly you have no other choice!

Just over 5km and an eternity later we reach Estalla! YAY! I’d jump but I am too weak. The first three hotels tell us they are booked out and the chances of finding a bed are slim. Its only day five and I am determined not to cheat and have to ring ahead to reserve accommodation. Foolish and headstrong I know. The last receptionist we meet tells us with a cheery smile that their sister hotel has a bed, they are located just 2km outside of town. A string of absurdities sweep across my thoughts. Two kilometres, are you joking me, like seriously does he even know how far that is to us right now. Luckily for this receptionist, I manage a smile and a thank you for your time.

We do find a room in a swanky hostel down the road just off the square. Another lady in a house jacket greets us at the reception. I am unsure if she is the cleaner or owner. The tried and tested international sign language and smiles fail us as we try to explain what we really want. Hands gesturing widely she leads us down a maze of corridors and opens a door to a perfect room with a double bed, a bathroom that actually has a mini bath in it. We stand like a pair of ejits grinning at our fortune! She spies us suspiciously and in I swear the only bit of english she has, says “marriage, YES?” I point to my wedding band and assure her “Sí, Sí” We have won the lottery tonight. A million apologies flow to sean for my bad behaviour today, he tells me as he pours an icy cold bath that all is forgiven if he can have a bath first! I love this man. Simple pleasures! We have walked for almost 11 hours today. I lay on the bed as Sean climbs into the meter by meter big bath. Today is our anniversary, I mull over how extraordinary our lives together have been, so far. How lucky we are to have found each other, to have both worked so goddam hard for all that we have, to share the same dream. I am smiling as I try and find suitable clothing for an anniversary dinner. Its hard when you don’t have access to your normal daily clothing allowance. After my freezing cold then boiling hot bath I worry about the aches and pains I may have later from the day’s walk. Not wanting anything to ruin this night I cover myself in tiger balm. I officially report, first hand experience that one can go into shock from applying too much tiger balm!

We found a table in the square outside a nice restaurant, we watched people come and go, children playing football with their grandparents, we sipped pints of icy cold beer and waited for the bells to chime seven. Over dinner I mention to Sean that we may just have won the competition. “Okay he says?” I reply, when was the last time you saw our friends, he laughs and tells me he is sure the Koreans will be hot on our tail tomorrow. I hope so, I think. Just behind the church we watched an incredible display of light. It had stopped raining in Estella and it was very late when we finished our dinner and drank the last drop of wine. The display of light was still raging on just beyond the city boundary. Somewhat tipsy we toddle off to see what was causing it. Standing on the bridge we were amazed to find that the light was indeed coming from a thunder and lightening storm in the next valley. It had been going on for hours. We found out the next day that all our friends who stayed in Lorca and Villatuerta experienced the worst thunderstorm and nights sleep of the trip. As for our “romantic night?” I would say we didn’t sleep, there wasn’t too much romancing going on. After walking 36km and enjoying dinner a bit too much. We pretty much passed out. 🙂

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