DAY 19: The Day We Walked Through Poo to Receive Sanctuary
The day began when all four of us touched the rough granite surface of a boulder rock, where etched into its heart with saffron yellow, were the numbers and letters “417 km to Santiago”. Halfway. We had reached halfway! This morning’s contrasting cool air lifted us up giving us that slight energetic boost as we bid goodbye to Javier, The Hospitalier of last night’s Albergue. We climbed out of the modest village of Pendueles and entered a long stretch of land that was coloured in the shiny hues of metallic greens, purples and dark golds. As the mist swept back and forth between us in a playful dance, we passed a kindly Austrian couple whom we chatted with for a little while before the path became too narrow to walk side by side and with a smile we continued onwards only to get lost a little ways down the track and meet up again, their vibrant purple and pink backpacks sticking out from the foggy landscape behind them.
We criss-crossed the mountain ranges through the early morning until the sun finally made a sallow appearance, just as the large town of Llanes came into view. We descended into the valley with a few other pilgrim friends in tow, including Jen, the lighthearted Chicagoan woman we had met the night before. Just as the sky began spitting stinging droplets of rain, we nestled into a small round table at a corner cafe to enjoy a light lunch of salads and chips. When a slight break in the weather appeared, Lalika and I raced across a white-washed stone bridge where we noticed the same ice cream shop as in Comillas, Heladeria Regma, was waiting for us on the other side with its giant servings.
After the sugary concoction of vanilla and chocolate ice cream boosted our blood sugar levels, we pulled on our plastic ponchos as a precaution to the gloomy sky and continued onwards to the next town of Poo. No, I didn’t have a typo error back there, (though we did learn later on that the locals pronounce it Poh). We had a charming stroll through Poo and managed to run into the kindly Austrian couple again who agreed with us that although it was a quaint and cute town, none of us would be swimming at Playa de Poo, which was a little bay and beach named after the town.
A little ways down the path we were stopped by an old lady who came all the way down from her baroque style balcony to tell us about a shortcut through the evergreen forest. With Jen and three other pilgrims, we decided to take the leap of faith and found ourselves wondering through a natural tunnel of dark fern that eventually led out onto a coastal stone walkway where below us mullets, the size of Jack Russell terriers, swam in hoards. We walked on, along a path that led us through little village alcoves, with their little squares attracting the locals for afternoon drinks. I don’t know how, but by this time we had managed to hit the 28 km mark, almost like marathoners in that last stretch, we felt like we were ready to hit the wall.
We stopped off at a pair of picnic benches outside an ancient white and brown wooden church for a quick breather, but were forced to continue onwards quickly when the bells began tolling to signal 5 pm at an ear-drum shattering volume. We still had five kilometres to go and at our pace this late in the afternoon, with our packs weighing us down, this meant roughly another two hours of walking.
The path led onto a forest road, where we met a solo French cyclist who was also on The Camino. He was just about to rack up his 1000 km riding from France and was keen to celebrate. As we came to a clearing where enclosed lay the small town of Nueva, we bid goodbye to him, as we needed to purchase supplies for our dinner and breakfast and push on to the Albergue we had planned to stay at. In this town, we found a small market where we managed to stock up as there would be no opportunities to do so at our destination of Piñeres de Pria. Once we left, we knew we were in the home stretch of only 3 kilometres to go, but even then I found it hard to keep out of the plunging grip of gloom. It is always in the last 3 km of the day, irrespective of how long or how little we walked, that the mind seemed to take control of my emotions and add 10 kgs of weight to each shoe. The end of today would equal the longest distance we had walked on the Camino so far. Those shoes got heavier again. We dragged our feet down the well-trodden paths as we crossed the railway line back and forth over some beautiful bridges and countryside. A huge dog came to the fence next to a narrow elevated path we walked along. Unlike most of the dogs in this part of the country who barked as if they were threatening to rip you apart, this friendly giant came forth with a sad look in his eyes and a warm greeting, beckoning us to pat him. Dad stopped off to give him a hearty pat and chat, but we were all keen to move on and finish for the day.
Finally, the Albergue came into view. We nearly cried tears of joy as we climbed the final steps onto the creaking patio, rang the bell and sat down, proud that we had just walked a full 32 kilometres (19.8 Miles).
An older woman with long black hair came to the door. “Sois Peregrinos, Si?” (You are Pilgrims Yes?)” she asked kindly in Spanish. We nodded unable to summon the energy to respond. “One moment,” she said and then disappeared. The lady returned and left numerous times telling us to wait just a few more minutes for her daughter who was the Hospitalier. A sense of dread crept over us with every second that past, and we waited with worried smiles on our faces. Ten minutes later, a younger version of the older lady appeared. She had an aura about her that promised good things no matter what she might say. “I’m very sorry” she began, “but we have no more beds here at this Albergue.” How could this be true, we thought, this was the place that had over 35 beds? However, we found out that a troop of 25 scouts, jamboreeing in the area, had arrived only fifteen minutes before us to avoid the impending wet weather. Before any of us could groan, sigh or break down in hysterical tears, she quickly continued speaking. “But there is another Albergue just 3 kilometers down the road with exactly four beds left for you. I have telephoned them, and they are waiting.” Despite this kind-hearted gesture, our hearts sank. The thought of the extra 3 kilometres (1.8 Miles) on a day where we had already walked 32, induced tears of exhaustion that began flowing from my eyes. The Hospitalier looked towards us and delivered one final piece of good news – “My mother is happy to drive you there.” All of us sighed, gratitude spilling from our lips.
Driving those 3 kilometres made us feel like we were flying. After 19 days of walking, this was the first time we had sat in a car, and the speed that enveloped us was surreal. The mother of the young woman dropped us off at the beginning of the Albergue’s driveway, and we thanked her again profusely before she gave us a friendly wave and disappeared. Walking into the front garden with a perfectly manicured green lawn that looked as soft as a carpet drenched with flowers of all colours blooming, a cheer rose up for us from the other Pilgrims who were sitting outside. A large and shaggy golden retriever bounded over to us happily, while a man and woman came towards us with delighted smiles and introduced themselves as Manfred and Brigitte. They were the German owners and caretakers of this wonderful Albergue, a simple yet warm red-roofed, white, two storey home, emanating the energies of love. Here they opened up their arms and declared to us “Welcome Home!”
We were shown to a private room made up in a fern floral print with three dark mahogany beds and closets. The whole area was swathed in a soft but regal dark pink velvet with white crocheted frills circling the outer rim. The shower had unlimited hot water, a luxury that was almost unimaginable in the world of The Camino. After resting for about an hour while talking with a young Canadian girl called Annie and one of the older Polish women with whom we constantly seemed to be crossing paths since Castro Urdiales, we heard the sweet chime of a silver bell calling us to dinner. Entering the home’s cozy dining room that was decorated with knick-knacks of all sorts and lit with rose scented candles, I was taken aback when I absorbed the warm intimacy of the setting. Another young woman called out to me kindly from the table, “Hi! I’m Katie. What’s your name?” Katie, Manfred and Brigitte’s daughter, was visiting for three weeks from Hamburg to spend precious time with her parents, before commencing the next phase in her life, as she was going to live in Barcelona. We were already acquainted with everyone else at the table, as the delicious first course of chickpea and carrot soup was served with love, and I felt an undeniable feeling of home. Our conversations floated out through the unused chimney as we talked and laughed happily as one big family.
This feeling was the direct result of Manfred and Brigitte consciously creating this Space of Love. Avid Peregrinos themselves, over the years they too had walked the Camino many times and it was their dream to create a space where Pilgrims were welcomed with love and kindness after a long day’s walk. They give of themselves and open their home along with their hearts in what is for me the truest spirit of the Camino.
One of the standing jokes of the evening was when we spotted a Thermomix peaking out from next to the fridge on the kitchen bench. Having traveled the world with our own for the past five years, there was a good five minutes of gushing over the virtues of this man-made machine. Katie declared the Thermomix as her mother’s second love, equal to her father.
“Yes, I do like it,” laughed Brigitte in her heavy German accent blushing.
“No Mum,” Katie interrupted. “You love it!”
After a second course of salad that was wrapped in a zingy lemon dressing and a dessert course of caramel yogurt, Manfred invited those who wished to come, to their small homemade wooden chapel to listen to some music.
When we entered the candle-lit abode, an aura of meditative bliss washed over us, as the first song of sweet tolling church bells lolled us back and forth. The second song held the honeyed voice of a devotional female singer singing ‘Spiritus Sancti’ over and over. During this time, I nearly fell asleep from sheer exhaustion and the lulling sounds of the sweet melody. Thanking Manfred, Brigitte and Katie energetically for their evening’s hospitalities, I trailed upstairs yawning with each step. One minute later mum entered the room asking if I wished to brush teeth. My silence answered her question because I was already asleep.