Wednesday, July 27, 2016

El Camino de Santiago, Part VI

Santiago on the horizon

By Valeria Idakieva

[Part V, “Mountain relief from the sweltering plain,” was published on July 12.]

A beautiful morning in the mountains invited me to savor the picturesque route.

    The mountain was unfolding its beauty before my eyes, and my heart was leaping with joy as I breathed the fresh air and relished the breathtaking views all around me.

    After the long sweltering days, I appreciated the mountain more than ever. The superb weather made the walking easy and fast. In the early evening, having covered 41 km, I decided to stop in the little village of Fonfria, although the guidebook said it had only about 40 inhabitants and one albergue. I was rewarded with a delicious dinner that gathered all the pilgrims around a big table.

The next morning, I was intending to take the longer – but quieter and easier – route past the Samos monastery and spend some time in sightseeing, because there was not much to be seen until Santiago. The town had lot of signs announcing this or that route, but after climbing some steep slopes I realized that I was on the other route. Although I was a bit disappointed, I decided not to go back and look for the originally intended route. I continued through little picturesque mountain villages towards Sarria, which is situated 100 km from Santiago de Compostela.

    I had read a lot about the crowds of pilgrims that gather in Sarria, mostly because a lot of them use it as a starting point for the Camino. The reason for doing so is that to receive a Compostela – a document that certifies that you have walked the Camino – you have to walk at least the last 100 km, and Sarria is a convenient location. My mind was occupied more or less with thoughts whether I was going to find a free bed for the night. When I reached Sarria in the early afternoon, I did not see any crowds.

    But there was another surprise for me. A few days earlier, while I was walking through the beautiful vineyards after Ponferrada, I had been bitten by a lot of mosquitos and, after the usual scratching, my arms were not a pretty sight. When I was checking in, two women who were supposed to share a room with me started talking about something quietly with the owner. In a few minutes he came up to me and asked me whether only my arms had been bitten and what I had been bitten by. I had to prove the bites were only on my arms by taking off my T-shirt. I guessed that the two women had told him I had bedbugs. Bedbugs are not a nice thing. I had heard some stories about other pilgrims being severely bitten by bedbugs and about the efforts of the owners of albergues to deal with the problem, but to tell the owner to make someone leave because you suspect they have bedbugs is not a nice thing either. Finally the owner decided to let me stay, and the two women went to another room.

Santiago was only 100 km away, cool wind was blowing, and the route waiting for me was easy for walking along small country roads and paths. All worries forgotten, I started early in the morning at full speed.
    Time passed quickly in walking through the beautiful countryside, leaving one hamlet or village, and entering another. A substantial lunch was in my mind, for the last 20 days I had been exhausting my body and probably had used most of its stored energy. In Portomarin, which was the only big town for the day, I met some fellow pilgrims and had a nice chat over the substantial lunch I had imagined earlier.
    Having filled the energy depot of my body, I could continue shortening the distance between Santiago and me and hope that my shoes, which were in pretty bad shape, were going to take me all the way there. Anyways, I was not going to leave them like this:
    At least, that day they put up with another 40 km.

The next day, I continued the easy walking through little villages and picturesque countryside.
    The beautiful oak and eucalyptus forest and its lovely smell surprised me nicely and lifted my spirits.

    Along the way I met Shaun, an Irishman who was doing the 100 km from Sarria in order to train for running a marathon. Having talked for a while, we agreed to have dinner together when we reached the town of Arzua, and I left him to have lunch in a café in one of the villages on the way. I entered Arzua in the late afternoon and after the usual shower and a little rest shared dinner and marathon and walking experiences with Shaun.

Santiago was very near and it was drawing me like a magnet. I got up early in the morning and rushed onto the road. It was a beautiful, sunny day, September was not as hot as August, and I was near the ocean, which brought on different weather. Walking under the shade of the trees was nice, filling me with tranquility and energy. Every step was taking me nearer the goal. Soon I reached the little river where the pilgrims cleansed themselves. It was not only a hygienic necessity, but also a ritual of cleansing and purification before entering the cathedral in Santiago. A woman and a girl were there, and the girl was washing her feet in the river, but I was quite content with having a picture on the bridge over the river.
    That night I was intending to stay at Monte de Gozo – the Mount of Joy, since it was the first place from which pilgrims in the old days could see the cathedral in Santiago. There is a huge albergue there, and I thought it would be convenient to stay there and enter Santiago early in the morning, but when I emerged there in the early afternoon I could not make myself do it. Santiago was only 4 km away and there was enough time. So off to Santiago!
    Reaching the city, I could see the cathedral from afar and my heart was filling with joy. But when I actually entered the big city, I as usual felt as if I had lost my way, having become small and awkward. I was circling some squares in the centre, not knowing where to go, seeing neither the cathedral nor any signs announcing it, when a woman came up to me and asked me how to get to the cathedral. We started talking and soon the talk started to merge into Bulgarian because it turned out that she too was Bulgarian. After a while we found the cathedral and agreed to have dinner later. Now it was time for me to get my Compostela and find a place to stay for the night. After sitting in a line for about an hour and getting my pilgrim’s passport dutifully checked, I got hold of the precious document. I was too tired, sweaty, and in need of finding a bed for the night to jump for joy, but I could manage a little smile.

Links to earlier parts:
Part I: Challenge and reward
Part II: On the road again
Part III: Legends and reality
Part IV: The Meseta
Part V: Mountain relief from the sweltering plain

Copyright © 2016 by Valeria Idakieva


  1. Beautifully narrated, Valeria! I am relieved that you didn't get budbugs, or abandon your shoes. Congratulations on completing this inspiring pilgrimage!

    1. And we readers, too, will soon complete the pilgrimage as well, when we read Valeria's concluding Part VII, probably this month.