Galicia has a mysterious feel to it. Nurturing Celtic roots and greener climes, it never fails to surprise me.
It’s eerie feel comes from the mist which regularly cloaks this north west region of Spain. To begin walking around 7am, still dark out here, is a lesson gifted by Mother Nature to allow a hiker to observe how she wakes up and it’s a present worth unwrapping slowly. Observe, be still once in a while, listen, savour and remember.
Darkness gradually fades, lightens into greys and silvers and I become aware of the mist swirling around me. A rising sun, always behind a pilgrim on the Camino Francais, announces it’s presence, an orange glow slowly revealing the cloud’s bellies and the tips of the mountains. Over the course of an hour my environment brightens as I climb, the air warms and from frigid beginnings I start to overheat quickly, peeling of layers.
A sight to behold is the mist draped below me. It’s sits in the creases and folds of the valleys, wraps around forests, drapes over the peaks and lays over the landscape, thinning in parts as the sun begins to win the battle. It recedes, thins and eventually disappears until the night falls again and it’s wispy fingers re-emerge once more like ghosts to hound the countryside.
Bikes are welcome, and common on the Camino.
I reach Hospital da Cruz, nothing more than a few stone houses clustered around a solitary café. A few familiar faces peer through the window as I approach and wave me over. Isabella, Dario, Yvonne, Fernanda and Fabio all stayed at Gonzar the previous night and we share a warming drink before leaving, slowly over the course of the day we will disperse, dipping in and out of each other’s company.
I notice the trail has become busier. The last four or five days of the Camino Francais see pilgrim numbers increase. This is down to two reasons. Firstly, to gain the certificate of completion for the Camino known as the Compostella, from the Cathedral authorities in Spain, the minimum distance required to walk is 100 kms (63 miles). This 100 km point lies just before Portomarin and many choose just to walk just this distance, converging on Portomarin or in the vicinity of it. Secondly, one of the other Camino routes to Santiago gaining in popularity is the Camino Norte which converges with the Camino Francais at the town of Arzua, about 41 kms (26 miles) from Santiago.
The Camino Francais is shown in bold red. There are numerous other tracks that work down to join it.
Suddenly the restaurants are busy, I have to phone ahead to book a place at the Albergues. If the appeal of this bothers you, don’t let it put you off. The Camino Norte is quieter and just as beautiful, there are also routes starting in Seville, Barcelona and Madrid in Spain, and Lisbon and Porto in Portugal. Pick your own route.
Here’s some more advice I can offer you. Number one is when your partner asks if they look OK in an item of clothing, always say yes. Second, never buy French cars and finally, when in the town of Melide, eat octopus.
Octopus, or Pulpo as it known out here is an excellent dish. Simply sliced into bite sized pieces, it is boiled and served on a wooden platter with a sprinkling of paprika. Cooked well it melts in the mouth, just don’t let the suckers put you off.
I stop in Melide at a Pulpeira, the name to given to the establishments serving the delicacy and partake in one of my favourite Spanish dishes with a little vino tinto. It’s as good as ever. It’s after 2pm now, the trail is much quieter as usual. Most pilgrims stop around early afternoon to escape the heat and the way is empty. Ribadiso da Baizo is eight miles away, a leisurely three hours. I pass the occasional walker resting in the shade but revel in the solitude this time of day offers.
The Xunta Hostel heralds my Arrival in Ribadiso, sitting on the banks of a quiet stream it is one of the most popular places to stay on the entire Camino Francais and it’s not hard to see why. A few pilgrims sit on the banks, dipping their feet in the crystal waters shaded by the trees either side. I have booked in at the Albergue Los Caminantes, a few paces further on where I discover another hazard of the latter stage of the Camino. My bed has been given to another hiker which is a common practice amongst the Albergues. Unless you reach your destination by early to mid-afternoon, they presume you aren’t coming and release the bed. I confer with Yvonne, a pilgrim from Slovenia who has the same problem. We discuss the situation with the owner, pushing our point across that there is little point in making a booking if it isn’t honoured. She relents, and somehow manages to find a couple of top bunks for us. It’s a lesson learnt, make sure you get to your accommodation by the time specified, or make sure you let them know what time you expect to arrive.
Walkers on their final, murky day approaching Santiago.
Narrow country lanes speckled with farms funnel me on to O Pedrouzo in the morning. Cattle moan from sheds, chickens run amok and dogs eye me cautiously. Stone walls rise a couple of feet either side, the tops draped in moss. It’s shady, if I’m not walking through woods then the roads are lined with oak and other trees. Off road onto the tracks it’s dusty, the soil parched after a long, hot summer. I undulate over the Galician countryside, hopping over streams and pass through many small hamlets. Most based around local farms, just a few houses huddled together and I’m enjoying regular places to rest and grab a bite to eat, or a drink.
O Pedrouzo lies just 12 miles from Santiago and it’s where I also rested overnight last year. It’s location is popular because of the striking distance to the end, 4 or 5 hours for most. It’s not the most picturesque place to stay but most amenities are laid on and several albergues dot the town. It has started to rain, the first I have witnessed in three weeks and the forecast is for more of the same tomorrow. It seems again I will be walking into Santiago getting wet.
Rested well, I get a good start at 7am. Everyone is happy and smiling, relishing the prospect of their arrival in Santiago. A place they have heard so much of, seen in countless photos and heard many stories about. A light drizzle worsens and I take half an hour’s refuge in a small café near Lavacolla. Fabio and Dario join me as rain trickles down the windows.
Bare feet – Why not?!
In 2002, when I first walked the Camino, the one aspect that stayed with me was a realisation that the destination is not the reason for an adventure whether it’s walking, running, sailing, or whatever. It was one of the reasons I touch on in my book on that journey – The Journey in Between and as I arrive in Santiago for the third time, it still resonates.
As dramatic as a pilgrim’s arrival in Santiago is, and the feeling of contentment that goes with it, it’s the sadness of finishing that makes me realise again that it isn’t the destination that is important, it is the journey and experience leading up to it. Santiago always holds wonderful memories but they are just a small part of the whole experience.
This is discussed with passion as I join Dario, Fabio, Isabella and Fernanda to celebrate our pilgrimage in one of the numerous tapas restaurants. Somehow we managed to find each other that afternoon and while they are all returning home, I am looking forward to repeating the walk to Finistera, another 50 or so miles, and then another day’s walk to Muxia where I can walk no further west as the Atlantic provides an emphatic finish to this trip.
The Praza do Obradoiro in Santiago de Compostella.