In the teeny village of Juan de Ortega we stayed in the church annex and the community served us garlic soup, after mass. It’s better than it sounds, and I think it might have kept the fleas at bay that night.
At 7a.m., those still asleep (an incredible feat!) are jolted into consciousness with a recording of Gregorian chants, traditional pilgrim songs, or in one case, Bob Marley. More rustling is joined by whispers in French, German, Spanish, Dutch…. Soon the room is vibrating with steady conversation; “How far are you going today?”, “Do you think it will rain again?”, “Can you believe how loud that guy snored?” People tend to their blisters and coat their feet with Vaseline before pulling on clean socks, and boots. The Spaniards swear by Vaseline as a way to prevent eruptions. Band-Aid wrappers and moleskin backing make up the majority of trash in an albergue.
Boots are usually neatly stacked on shelves near the front door for airing overnight.
It’s always a blessing to utilize all the facilities before one leaves the refugio in the morning because toilets are few and far between on the trail. For the first week urgencies struck me at the most inopportune moments and I had no choice but to fertilize some poor farmer’s wheat field, or olive grove, or vineyard. So if someone offers you this year’s red wine harvest from the Rioja region of Spain, you should give it a miss, because there is sure to be a little of Tris in every drop.
As the refugio empties, everyone wishes one another a Buen Camino, a good walk. We walk out of the refugio and look for a yellow arrow, usually painted on the road, or on a building, which indicates the way to go. (We usually arrive the previous evening so tired, nothing looks familiar. The next morning, we barely remember which direction we came from, so the arrows are a blessing.)
All day long, we follow yellow arrows. They appear on trees, benches, stop signs, buildings, overpasses, or on dedicated Camino steles. Sometimes someone has taken the time to fashion an arrow from stones collected along the road. We are always curious to meet the people who have the energy to do that.
Acceptable modes of travel on the Camino are by foot, by bicycle, by horse, or by donkey. Every day we look for signs of the one donkey on the trail. By the evidence (fresh, but not that fresh), the donkey is a day ahead of us.
The landscape and scenery varies by the hour. One day it’s gentle rolling hills of nothing but wheat fields. The next, it’s vineyards followed by a steep climb. The day after, we walk on 17 kilometers of straight-as-an-arrow Roman road, The Via Trajana. Sometimes, we walk on a path next to a main road and those are our least favorite days.
By 10am, it’s time for a coffee break, or to check in with the friends we made the night before at the refugio. Everyone walks at his or her own pace. Many people prefer to walk alone, solitario.
If we are lucky, the town might have a shop or tienda where we can buy supplies for a picnic lunch. Everything closes in the middle of the day, so we have to time this carefully, or we can go the day without eating. This happened only once.
The daily walk is usually broken every 3, or 6, or 13 kilometers by another village with a church - always a church - and a bar. Bars serve coffee, croissants, beer, and sandwiches in a smoke filled environment. But it is the only place for a cup of coffee in the morning or a cold San Miguel for an afternoon pick-me-up.
Throughout the day, we are serenaded by frogs that make sounds like the tribbles from Star Trek. It seems there is never a single moment without birdsong, and we love that part of walking the Camino.
Sometimes, the scenery is like walking through a photo that has been enhanced in Photoshop. The sky is too blue, the shoots of newly planted wheat too green, the clouds too blindingly white and fluffy. But the colors are real.
By 3 in the afternoon, we are usually ready to stop for the day – our feet are killing us and I am ready to throw my pack into a ditch. But there isn't a church steeple in sight, so we must keep going. I pray that there is not a steep ascent, or any change in elevation at all, before we get there. It doesn’t matter if we walk 13 kilometers or 24. The last 4 kilometers are always murder.
Finally, we reach a village and follow the yellow arrows to an albergue or refugio (same thing). The villages often seem completely deserted. There are many For Sale signs. The recession has hit Spain hard.
Sometimes there is local entertainment. In one village, the hospitaliar suddenly exclaimed, “The cows are coming!” and we all went out to watch a nightly parade of cows walking through the main square with the locals. Scott was inspired. We tied red sashes (the rain covers for our packs) around our waists and "ran with the bulls". Only, they weren't bulls. They were matronly cows with milk-swollen udders.
Mine always is, Please, God, help me convince the Spaniard sleeping in the next bunk that fresh air is a good thing. This is how the conversation goes each night between me and the person in the next bunk. I try my best to communicate in Spanish, which by now you know is pretty bad, to say the least.
I open the window.
Spaniard says, “No! During the night the air will cross my face!”
“Yes!” I say. “The time in this temperature is very good!”
Spaniard looks at me with mixture of pity and confusion and says once more, “No!”
I plead with my eyes and say, “Until sleep time, it is well that the window is open for business!” Spaniard rolls over.
The symphony of snoring begins.
Scott and Tris
On the Way of St. James
Camino Francais, Spain