Yellow bricks? No, yellow arrows… We’re off to see Saint James!

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So, this is the story: my friend Marc is a huge fan of the Saint James’ Way -maybe I should say he was, as his current status as a father of two does not allow him to indulge in any kind of pilgrimage anymore. By huge fan I mean that he used to take every change he got to complete, by stages, every known Road to Santiago (The French Way, The Silver Way, The North Way…). In the summer of 2011 he was invested in El Camino del Norte, the one that follows the northern coast of the Spanish State through Navarre, the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia (the one that could also be known as the rainy one). He had 10 days to take off from were he had left on a previous trip and he asked me and our friend Glòria (yes, there were 2 of us) to join him. So we did – although Glòria T would come later.

So we took our Pilgrim’s Credential – yes, you need one that gets sealed at the pilgrims’ hostels, first, to be able to sleep there and second, to prove you’ve walked all the way to Santiago… that is for those who need to prove it – if you want to get the Compostela (the official accreditation issued by the Holy Apostolic and Metropolitan Cathedral of Compostela) you need to complete at least the last 100km on foot.

Our adventure – which is really not, it’s just walking, but I had to call it something- started in a bus (a long, sleepless and uncomfortable night of children vomiting and other niceties) to Oviedo from Barcelona’s Estació del Nord followed by another bus to Avilés and a train to the town of Muros de Nalón, in the green and pretty kingdom of Asturias, where a walk of 20 something kilometres awaited us under grey skies. So we sealed our credential at the city hall, had a much needed coffee in a local colourful bar and set off to follow the yellow arrows and scallops that mark the way to Santiago de Compostela, more specifically to the shrine of the Apostle at the Cathedral in Praza da Obradoiro. For many hikers it has nothing to do with religion or faith, but more with tradition – and the allure of walking the same path millions of pilgrims have roamed for centuries, which also adds a certain magic to it. We’re talking about the main pilgrimage site of the Christian World up to the 14thC… So yes, this is no ordinary trail. Although probably, to be fair, most hikers would argue that no trail is ordinary whatsoever.

Our first day took us up to Monte Santa Ana, Arraya and the spectacular scenery of the Concha de Artedo. It was around 5pm when we reached Soto de Luiña and there were no beds left at the hostel. Thank god they had an annex, a gym with some mattresses on the floor that would be opened at 7pm. So we sealed our Credential, we took a very welcome shower – the day had been humid and sweaty, all after a night on a bus, which means wearing the same clothes for too long- and we waited at a local bar, safe from a sudden outburst of rain, to get our mattress. Then dinner and off to the floor. It was a cold and miserable night for me – I had packed light for obvious reasons (9kg total) and had no sleeping bag, just a folded bed sheet. So I slept with my polar jacket on and my legs covered with my raincoat – as my ridiculously small compact towel was useless as a cover (although highly practical for mountain treks).

We got up at six – and we were not the only ones. Our next stop was Cadavedo and its pilgrim’s hostel only had 10 beds available, so our second day was kind of a weird race. It was another grey day and it rained a bit. And we sweated like hell inside our goretex raincoats. It was totally worth it though, the path took us up some coastal cliffs and its breathtaking views and down to some gorgeous cobbled beaches.

And we got to Cadavedo on time to take the last 2 beds available. Yeah! Bed and a blanket!!! The hostel was a tiny two-bedroom house with one single bathroom and one small dining room in the outskirts. After our shower the idea was to get something to eat but we ended up visiting the ermita de la Regalina, a lovely church that stands on a field of green grass on the very tip of a cliff overlooking the sea at the end of the long and beautiful village that is Cadavedo. So we grabbed some bread and paté instead to make ourselves a sandwich at the hostel while waiting for the hospitalera to seal our credential. We had a nice dinner in the village to make up for that sad absence of lunch and made plans for the following day, as we had to pick Glòria T in Luarca bus station by noon.

Once again, we got up at 6 along with almost everybody else to start walking in the dark. One curious fact: that area of Spain should be running at the same time as the British Isles and Portugal but finds itself ruled by current Spanish time GMT+1 (and the reason why Spain runs with Berlin time comes from Franco’s alliance with Hitler… oh, joy, and the reason why Spain is still subjected to the whim of a death dictator is… too complicated to explain). The consequence of that is that in Asturias and Galicia the sun rises late and sets late. So in summer it’s dark at 8 in the morning while you still get light at 11pm… Why the inhabitants of these areas are not mobilizing to change that is beyond me…  Of course, having the Balearic Islands run with the same clock as London would be equally absurd (which is the alternate option, as it seems that having the peninsular Spain run with 2 different time zones would rip the country apart, apparently).

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The sun was already high when we found the Canero Inn and sat to have breakfast at one of the wooden tables by the road. It was a beautiful day, warm and sunny, and we could enjoy the scenery under blue skies, for a change.

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Luarca

Luarca is a really beautiful town and we took the chance to go soak our feet at the beach while waiting for Gloria’s bus (which arrived around 12). After we picked our third companion we had a picnic lunch by the church overlooking the town. As gorgeous as the morning leg had been, the second half of the day to Piñera was ugly as hell. At least there were still beds available in the hostel -set in the old school- when we got there. We took the chance to wash some clothes and dry them in the sun. There was no place to eat or buy food around the village – which is more like a bunch of houses-, luckily, Glòria had brought some things from home that we could share.

Our last Asturian stage, that would take us to La Caridad (Arbocés), was a really short one, only 14km, so we took it easy, setting off at 7:30 and stopping at Navia, a fishing village, for breakfast – coffee and a homemade sponge cake in a harbour tavern- and some fruit shopping. We arrived at La Caridad at noon and the hospitalero was already there (for once we didn’t have to waste our time waiting, we could seal the bloody thing and forget about it, which is a relief). After the mandatory shower we had a pilgrim’s menu for 8€ at a local restaurant (a heavy lunch as the absence of green, vegetables and fruit seemed to be a constant in the eateries we ran along, something that caused Glòria T, a certified nutritionist, to despair) after which we walked to a beach 2km away from the village.

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We sat on the big cobbles to gaze at the sea and watch the tide rise in a semi-mystical mood before getting back to the village for food shopping – we had to cover our mundane necessities too. Quiet evening in the hostel, now pretty full, reencountering people we’d lost a couple of legs back, hanging out in the garden, chatting… it was a pretty big hostel with a football ground – people were using the goal to hang their clothes to dry. Anybody who’s ever walked a trail will know: you keep bumping into the same people over and over (nice, nasty and weird alike). Many people have made best friends or have met their life partners while walking (it makes a nice story to tell the kids).

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As it couldn’t be otherwise, the day we crossed the border with Galicia, it was raining. It rained annoyingly for most of the morning, until we found a place to have breakfast – a hotel. Then it stopped, of course. Luckily it didn’t go on after we left the hotel and we were already dry when we came across the bridge that crosses the ria that separates both kingdoms. We were in Ribadeo before 1am, really tired and aching all over but with the weird feeling we had just set off from La Caridad a minute before. We were lucky to find some beds in the hostel, above the ría and under the bridge. Shower and a 9€ lunch menu (no vegetables, no fruit, no green), food shopping (fruit and green basically) and rest.

We left at 7 for Lourenzà – a really beautiful leg of 29km from Ribadeo, crossing hills and following trails. That was also the day we left the coast behind. We arrived at our destination around 2pm and pretty  tired. We were lucky to get our beds and our seal. The hostel was new and had a kitchen – the first to have one- so we celebrated by cooking ourselves a big pasta dish for lunch. People kept coming to the hostel, already full, and stood outside waiting to be taken to a sports pavilion for the night. So we took off to get some coffee, buy more food and visit the town.

At this point we had already entered in a curious collective mindset, the three of us, from spending so much time together walking and talking. We would start laughing hysterically at really silly jokes – we had come up with this imaginary character we named “el peregrino chungo” (which would translate as “the nasty pilgrim”) and we would imagine his reaction to situations and things and most of all, people. We came across some interesting characters and some not so interesting ones –in a bad way (like some people paying 3€ to sleep in a pilgrim’s hostel and expecting to be treated like royalty. And complaining about the facilities or about locals not being a 100% devoted to them and so on…) At some point we all wished for the peregrino chungo to be real, I swear. And he was a real bastard, that one.

It is also funny how, after a few days, walking just comes naturally as part of the daily routine and you feel like you could walk forever. Our last three legs took us inland trough the beautiful countryside of Galicia, first to Abadín-Gontán, with its brand new hostel, big and really nice. Lodging kept getting better and better now we were getting closer to Santiago. The following two, Vilalba and Baamonde were going to be even nicer, specially the last one, a converted stagecoach garage, really cosy with wooden floors and a garden. That was to be our last night on the road, Santiago was only 100 km away but we had no more time. We would have to finish by bus.

It was a really gorgeous day when we arrived at Santiago de Compostela. La praza da Obradoiro was buzzing with people: tourists, pilgrims and also locals, alone or in groups, just taking pictures, chatting, basking in the sunshine -the air was a bit chilly that early in the morning- or gazing at the cathedral’s magnificent façade when a large group of South Africans barged in the square singing Sosholoza and waving their flags. Inside the cathedral, tourists and pilgrims alike from all over the world queued to see the Saint.  Well, that’s what we all had come here for, after all. Religious or not, we were pilgrims… and we all believed in something, whatever it might be (and there are no roads to Han Solo’s grave…). We had all walked here to see Saint James, weird as it sounds in the 21stC. As I already pointed out, this is no ordinary trail.

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There in Santiago we parted ways – we had booked different flights back to BCN – with the promise that one day we would walk the last 100km together. We haven’t and it is highly unlikely we ever will, but who knows? Life is unpredictable.

As the pilgrim’s greeting goes: “Buen camino”.

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