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The Camino de Santiago: O Cebreiro to Santiago de Compostela

The albergue in O Cebreiro was freezing that night and, though I had three layers top and bottom, I could not get warm. Unsurprising then when I went out and found the village a pretty winter wonderland in the snow.

Again I decided to take the main road, though a little longer, as it would be safer. The day began beautifully with just a little falling snow though this turned into icy needles in my eyes, worsening to a blizzard several times. The snow ploughs passed up and down but often the snow was falling as fast as they were ploughing and at times I couldn’t even see tire tracks to follow. Several times the snow plough blew the horn at me in greeting with a big thumbs up. A quick hot chocolate break was had early in the day and after that I had to detour to visit the villages along the way so instead I decided to push on. In any case most facilities were now closed so I would have gained nothing. The tube of my platypus froze and I wasn’t stoping to take off my pack to get water. Though I was taking photos when I could I still walked much faster than normal. Considering my pack was even heavier than usual with all the encrusted snow and ice I was really surprised.

Once after a long spell of watching my feet only I looked up to see what I was convinced was a wolf in the middle of the road. Actually it was just a loud and quite large Alsatian. It was about this point I was seriously reconsidering the wisdom of my plan and was in two minds whether to double back and see if I could call a taxi. I almost regretted not at one point.

I think most pilgrims decided to also follow the road, and thinking about it, if I was at home I would say that deciding to walk in this weather was at best brave and at worst folly. The guardia civil drove up and down continuously, if I was really stuck I could have stopped them. In fact I did at one point, to tell them a car was stopped further back. They could neither go up nor down. I think they were surprised I wasn’t asking for assistance!

I met one man walking in the opposite direction, he said once the road was bring ploughed he would be ok. It is perhaps harder when the signage is primarily for east to west. But today it probably wouldn’t matter, it was all under snow.

As I descended the snow turned to freezing rain which was worse than any snow. I was snow soaked, frozen, and my face was being lashed by knives. It was with relief that I finally cane down to the level of green, my sodden gloves were almost impossible to put back on my numb fingers.

Once I got clean, dry and fed at the albergue, with its unbelievable boot dryer, I really didn’t want to venture out in the rain again.

After managing to dry everything the previous evening it wasn’t long before my boots were sodden again the next day walking through the slush. This was the nice type of snow, a pretty dusting on the tree covered hills, not flying into my face. I met a elderly man from Seville who proudly showed me his certificate after completing the Camino Portuguese. He was now heading to Lourdes. He told me he didn’t have much money and asked if I could help him. I don’t have much myself, the Camino being more expensive than I had planned and was taking longer than I had planned to. Maybe he was codding me, maybe he was genuine, I just thought “Fair play to him” for doing all he was. He was nice and kind and I slipped him a tenner. Maybe someone will do the same for me some day when I need it.

I took the longer route, an extra 6km, I headed towards Samos where a magnificent monastery lay nestled in the valley. A Dutch man in the albergue recommended that I take the tour, which consisted of just me and the guide. Only eight monks live there now and one novice.

After lunch I headed on towards Sarria, through more wooded paths and small villages. At times there are alternative Camino paths and here I made a mistake, adding another 5-6km on to my already longer route. The steep tracks were now rivers after all the rain and melting snow, the mud was six inches deep in places, it was lashing rain, though there was the occasional sunny period. It was really beautiful and incredibly tough. Not wearing all my clothes my pack felt much heavier and I was soaked into the skin.

Just before Sarria I saw a bus shelter and ran as fast as I could to it, which was really a very slow trudging, just so I could sit in the dry for five minutes. A man beeped enthusiastically at me in encouragement. I eventually arrived in the impossibly hilly town completely spent, stopping only to pick up a huge and ridiculous poncho coat to cover me and my bag as the one I had was useless.

To make up for not seeing the town at all when I arrived, after a leisurely breakfast I walked around with half a mind to stay another day. At a little over 110km from Santiago, Sarria is the usual starting point for most doing the short Camino. There is a noticeable increase of pilgrims, setting off like jellyfish, in their rain gear, as my friend described them, but it’s a lot less than only a few weeks ago. They’re all fresh, bright eyed and busy tailed. At the start of their adventure. Then you have the veterans, fit and raring to go at 30km a day. Then there was me, no energy and wanting an easy day. After an hour I decided that I had enough of Sarria and went for a half day to Ferreira, more up and down through the hills. Green and lush, the landscape is eerily like home. I say eerily because I came around one hairpin bend thinking I was a mile from my house in Ring. The stench of slurry, overpowering near the farms is also familiar.

An afternoon bout of rain confirmed my intentions. The forecast predicted rain more often than not for the next week and possibly until eternity or so it seemed. I found the municipal albergue with a note saying the manger was gone out, to get a bed and check in when she was back. Which I did, got something to eat in the bar/albergue around the corner, the only other establishment in the town as far as I could see; and spent the rest of the day doing nothing in the least efficient way. I was now 101km from Santiago, to see only double numbers the following day, finally arriving at a long sought destination was something completely surreal.

Despite planning to leave early I waited until light as the rain was depressingly heavy the next morning. It only becomes properly bright at almost half eight and the thought of dark roads in heavy rain was rather depressing. Maybe I have Camino fatigue or maybe it’s just the weather.

After the bridge leading to Portomartin you’re faced with about fifty steps up to an arch. Even though the book indicated it was mostly level going these few days have been hilly. Endless ups and downs and I was less than enthusiastic about the steps having to take a longer complimentary path due to flooded paths. Portomartin also had few but confusing signs and I had to take a turn around to figure out that the continuation was almost a reversal of my entry.

It was a quiet Sunday and little was open in the town. Maybe also because I was not following the guidebook stages I saw few pilgrims, though many cyclists. Again the landscape was dominated largely by forest paths, sometimes almost impassible; passing through small villages and the strong presence of agriculture. High corn storage are very common and I took countless pictures.

Again stopping in a municipal albergue in a one bar no shop village, I was again alone in a large dorm. Though this time it was much warmer, easy to dry my clothes at least; and the hospitalier didn’t offer to bring me a second blanket when I was in bed as happened the previous night when she locked up for the night. It was like being tucked up by my Spanish mammy.

As if by a miracle the following day was almost rain free. Instead of sweating under the ridiculous poncho I just had a jacket, and the kilometres passed very pleasantly. At one point I passed a farm with a large pack of unseen dogs howling a yapping like wolves.

Again I passed through a larger town in the middle of the day, Palas de Rei, though I didn’t fancy stopping for the night and headed further to Casanova. This time I had to share. The hospitalier asked if I spoke Spanish. Yes some but not Galego. Galician, at least in accent, sounds much more like Portuguese to my ears and you can maybe see it’s influence in words like do instead of de, ciao instead of adios and so on. The letter X is also common but I haven’t figured out how it’s pronounced.

A very sociable evening passed with my single dormitory mate and the next day I set off just before 8am alone on the trail for most of the day. It was rather uneventful, forest paths in the rain, with the usual collection of small villages, but for the most part very beautiful and peaceful.

Arriving in Melide too early for lunch and too late for breakfast, I didn’t spend much time there. The Galician towns of the last few days have not been as scenic as others. As I wasn’t quite ready for the crowds I stopped a few kilometres early at Rivadiso, where the pilgrim refuge by the medieval bridge dates back to the sixteenth century. As it is out of season the bar was again closed, as is often the case in the small villages here. The supermarket also.

In the municipal albergues you can usually get a blanket upon request, as the last few I stayed it. Not this one. And the weak heating system was no match for the thick stone walls on a wet November night. Even the shower had me in goosebumps, still, I expect in the heat of summer this beautiful and historic refuge would be quite pleasant. But my fleece liner was woefully inadequate though it had been too hot when I began the Camino. As I write this I’m wearing two posits of socks (one enormous and fluffy), two leggings (one merino), a T-shirt, merino base layer, thin fleece, heavy fleece and I am so cold. Still my dorm mates, a French girl and a lovely older Spanish man, an astonishing nine time camino veteran, were lovely.

It was hard to rouse myself the next morning, wrapped in my sleeping bag, despite waking repeatedly during the night. I headed off up the impossibly steep hill, glad it was too dark to see it well, and had breakfast and ran errands in Aruza.

The wet night left beautiful mists in the folds of the valleys and in the sunshine of the morning it was a really beautiful walk up and down the hills. There are always hills. But it was peaceful and beautiful, with few pilgrims. Some looking a lot more put together than me. I looked like someone who had seen too much, mud spattered though I had washed everything the night before, something that had rolled down the mountains.

The rain came later, as usual, all that was slowing me down was a lack of fuel and if I hadn’t found an open bar when I did I would have sat on the side of the road and cried. Luckily I demolished a plate of pasta instead, these days you have to plan a bit better to hit the remaining open services at the right time.

It’s been strange the last few days seeing the kilometres slowly count down. As I write this I have 19.5km left, give or take. It’s hard to take in how such a seemingly never ending journey is almost a reality. Yet it seems utterly unreal and I can’t quite take it in. What happens next?

The next morning I rode early, well a bit early. My Spanish friend who has adopted me tutted at my kicked off blankets. It’s the small things on the Camino.

It wasn’t long before I reached a densely forested path that my Spanish friend had warned me about. I couldn’t see a thing. Two Spaniards came up behind me and asked to go with me as I had a head torch. Head torch or no the thick fog made it almost impossible to see and a few times as the path curved we hit the edge and had to search left and right for the turn. Gradually the dawn broke and the low fog was beautiful. Today there was no book, no music, just birdsong, the distant roar of traffic and my thoughts as I tried to take in the day and its meaning. The city hinted its presence long before I saw it, passing my the airport, through tunnels, glimpses of motorways, but still plenty of greenery to soothe the soul.

For the last 100km you need to collect two sellos for your pilgrim credential but this is a little difficult during the low season when most cafes and churches are closed. By the time I found an open one I was also famished so a stop was needed. And my shoulders were killing me from the pack, too tense and I couldn’t release them. My tendons were also asking for a break and I took it slow. At this stage what was a few more hours.

At the Monument to the Pilgrim I met a Swiss man who had started from home, and we walked the last five kilometres to the cathedral together, chatting along the way. I don’t usually walk with someone but it was so nice on this last day. And when we finally arrived at the cathedral, with the sound of Galician bagpipes wafting our from the nearby arch, I actually had someone to take my photo before I flopped down on the ground in the middle of the square to try and take it in. I had made it.

My period of reflection didn’t last too long. A little morning rain had given way to a bright pleasant day with periods of real warmth in the sun. Suddenly the dark clouds to the left of the cathedral spires won over the blue sky to the right and the most incredible tropical downpour sent everyone scurrying to the nearest shelter. There I saw people I had met along the way, for a long conversation, a few words or just by sight. Walking alone is empowering but it’s nice to have a feeling of community just sometimes. That feeling of a shared experience.

I was planning to stay in one of the large traditional municipal albergues but it was closed for the winter. Then my (I have to stress extremely) generous aunt offered me a night in the parador just next to the cathedral. A luxury I wouldn’t have chosen but oh my god it was welcome. The original pilgrim rest dating back over five hundred years it is a beautiful building. They also offer ten free pilgrim meals on a first come basis. I was obviously too late. And it had a bath. Where I spent two glorious hours eating chocolate. Sightseeing proper and all the little jobs I needed to do could wait until tomorrow.

I went out to collect my Compostela, my official pilgrim certificate including one stating that I had walked just under 780km. It was definitely longer with all my long cuts and days walking around exploring, but it was a nice memento, even if it’s not about the certificate. I then went to the cathedral to embrace the statue of Santiago. Though undergoing extensive renovations it is a wonderful building, the simplicity of the gothic interior more to my taste than the ornate baroque alter piece, though that’s my preference.

There I ran into my Spanish friend again and we went for food, all the time getting a free tour and bits of history along the way. My Spanish getting a major workout as usual. I mention it because it was so nice to make a friend like this. You meet many people along the way. Sometimes exchanging contact details and vowing to stay in touch but you never do. Or in this case not exchanging details but I wish I had.

When I first started I wasn’t sure if my foot would let me get over the Pyrenees, then Pamplona became the next goal. The whole Camino was too big an idea, so I focused on the next week, the next big town, and went my own slow pace. I stoped to soak up the atmosphere in Burgos, Leon and other places. I walked in 30° heat and sunshine, in winds that pushed you sideways, in blizzards, and of course in the eternal rain. I met people from every inhabited continent. I’ve loved it, I’ve hated it, and I’m almost there. Such a strange feeling and one I don’t yet understand. But I did it.

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