DAY 35: Storm and Sanctuary
My torch lit up the dark world around me, the distant, milky silhouettes of our fellow pilgrims starting out on the day’s path, coming to life in sharp outlines. The warm lights of the Albergue lit up the inky horizon in starry bursts of comfort and the sounds of everyone enjoying breakfast together in the quaint and cozy kitchen made me smile, though only briefly. For what enveloped the moonless dawn, faintly visible through the windows, could only make a pilgrim on the Camino de Santiago shiver with dread: Rain. Lots and lots of rain, pouring down upon the Earth in harsh cold bullets, with its stormy wrath washing away all memory of yesterday’s sunny afternoon.
We gave Ingrid (Miraz’s temporary Hospitaliera and our new friend) a big hug to thank her for her kindness and the long conversations we had indulged in the previous day. Then we savoured the heat and the light of the Albergue one last time before hauling our poncho and plastic covered backpacks onto our backs and heading out into the raging torrent of water.
Within mere seconds we were soaked, our raincoats sticking to our skins, instantly shattering any of the artificial warmth I had been harbouring from inside the Albergue. We were buffeted forwards by the raging winds, the howling intensity echoing through our ears. In truth, it was shocking. In those first few minutes, our minds simply couldn’t comprehend the sudden transition from the warmth and dry to the bitter cold. The rain pierced our limbs like serrated nails and I’m not exaggerating when I say I lost feeling in my fingers in just minutes.
I could feel our morale lowering with each sloshing step I took. I tried desperately to think of cheerful things like the hot food and showers waiting for us at the end of the day’s trial but it seemed so long and so far away that I couldn’t help but slowly succumb to misery. Around us, the rain would not relent, sweeping through the trees with a deadly precision. In fact, there were times when the rain seemed to be falling from all angles.
Three and half hours and 10k later we spotted the tiny framework of a cafe in the village of Roxica. We still had more than halfway to go to reach our end destination of Sobrado dos Monxes but in that moment all I could see was a heavenly light exuding from the cafe doors promising respite, rest and a little bit of warmth for our waterlogged bodies. We barrelled through the door to the slightly less comforting news that they sold no hot food of any sorts. Instead, we settled for olives and bananas with freshly brewed Vanilla Tea and Tarta de Santiago (The famed almond cake of Santiago) made by the grandmotherly owner of the cafe. It was a strange combination of food (and maybe it was hypothermia sinking through our skulls), but it all tasted surprisingly appetising.
Returning out to the trail was something none of us wanted to do and I would have been content to bunk down in the cafe and stroke the friendly cat until the rain decided to calm its outrage, but we had no such option. We miserably slipped back into our soaked attire and out into the storm.
Over the next few hours I tried to fight my growing despair by coming up with a variety of solutions to keep warm, but none of them lasted more than a measly ten minutes. At one point I was so desperate to retrieve even a sliver of feeling to my fingers that I joined Mum’s aerobic antics (intended to get our blood flowing and raise our morale), trying to mimic her energetic movements as we entered into another quaint Galician village. Hopefully, I did well enough as numerous people opened their curtains to wave and encourage us on, but I’m pretty sure I was just thrashing around… seizure style.
Onwards we marched, dripping with all the intensity that would’ve come if we had just finished a refreshing swim in the pool. I know that I’ve said, to keep optimistic when walking this Camino, to not let your mind defeat your body. (I even addressed this back at Day 2) But right then and there, soaked to the skin, hungry, tired and shivering, it was very difficult for me, nearly impossible, to be optimistic about anything.
For a while, we were all teetering on the fine edge of quietude and insanity when suddenly the track diverged and took us through an old man’s backyard. The path was to continue through his back gate but we all had to stop for a moment to appreciate the fact that here was another human being, outside, tending to his garden despite the weather.
“Where are you headed!?” he cried in Spanish, enthusiastically swinging his gardening tool back and forth, sending numerous wet leaves to latch onto our sleeves in the process.
“Sobrado dos Monxes.” Our teeth managed to chatter out.
“Why you’re nearly there then! Just a kilometre or two to go!”
“Really?!” I managed to force my frozen face to form into an expression of disbelief.
“Yes! Yes! Just over that hill is the town!”
With one last animated wave the man returned to his garden and for the first time in the entire day, I felt a flicker of hope ignite! But then it was quickly doused when we realised the last thing standing in our way to refuge was a meter deep puddle of muddy muck filled with dead bugs, leaves and all around sludge. Probably leeches as well now that I think about it. All day we had delicately been avoiding all puddles and pools, doing everything in our power to keep our shoes as dry as possible. Now over the trees, I could see what could only be the town of Sobrado dos Monxes and in that moment I lost all sense of caring. I stepped forward and squelched through the entire puddle, wading all the way through the centre as if in a stupor. I suddenly relished the slime and scum and mire and cackled wildly as it seeped through my clothes. I may have momentarily lost my mind. But then… my family followed. All of us stomping through the muck until finally, exhausted but definitely uplifted, we reached the other side.
All four of us were completely covered in mud and sludge from the knees down. We looked up at each other and I knew that we were all on the brink of a thousand different emotions. And then just like that, we were laughing. Laughing at the endless rain and the freezing wind. Laughing at the oppressive mist, meter long puddles and grimy water sloshing around in our shoes. Laughing at the absurdity of the fact that for 34 whole days we had only twice felt the shortest of drizzles dampen our backpacks and now here we were, in a full-fledged torrential downpour just three days from the end of our journey.
But now that not longer mattered, for we could see the majestic cobblestone entrance of Sobrado dos Monxes, and just a little bit further along, the steeple of the Monastery that would also serve as tonight’s Albergue.
We descended down into the town and it was just as my fingers brushed over the last Camino shell pointer of the day that the rain, finally, blissfully, ceased. It was also then that I pushed back the hood of my raincoat for the first time all day and looked up at the formation that was crossing my shadow with its own.
For a moment I had to question whether it was real or not, this majestic cathedral rising out of the sunken mist like a ship restored from the dark depths of the ocean. Founded in the 10th Century by the Benedictines and still standing more than 1000 years later was the Cistercian Santa María de Sobrado Monastery.
At that moment I couldn’t stop the smile that alighted my face, for despite the freezing winds, brittle cold, soaking feet, and heavy backpacks, it felt as if we had stepped through the borders of reality and fiction into the fantastical, medieval worlds that could always spark exhilaration within me. And just like all those ancient places and people that fascinated, enchanted, and inspired me… here we were, joining them; the weary travellers of the road, come to claim sanctuary at last.
It was magical. Everything from the stone cloisters that housed sixty bunk beds for us pilgrims to the ancient chapels tinted green by time. The stone walls of the underground kitchen that held so many secrets and was now stocked with shelves of pasta and tomato sauce. The crypts of those who called these hallowed halls their final resting place. The hypnotising pillars drying neon raincoats. The tolling of the church bell. The harsh whispers of the wind. And the otherworldly chorale ringing through the hidden chambers.
Magical. All of it. Every single stone and shard of glass. I let my backpack to the ground, the trials of the day already fading. Then, all I could do was sit down on the wooden bench and try to fathom the fact that this place, if even for just one night, was my home.
After witnessing the hand dryers unanimously break down across the Monastery due to the overuse of all pilgrims trying to dry their shoes and socks, we found ourselves face to face to with Delf and Rolfe, the two German brothers we had met the day before in Miraz. Inside the warm kitchen hall of the Monastery, we sat around the table, talking and sharing our collective love of classical and folk music.
Rolfe retrieved his phone to show us his latest performance with an orchestra in Germany. He pressed play and let the music echo throughout the room of this old monastery. In that moment, it was as if the music had taken on a life of its own, flying up to the rafters. The melodies seemed to align in perfect synchronicity with the remnants of the rain, the drops and notes resonating with each other against the ancient statues and stone. It was then that an inner warmth took over my entire body and finally restored a heat that I had almost forgotten existed. Sitting inside, that kitchen with the scent of dried herbs infused with pasta, new friends, old stone walls and glorious music, was enough to warm my very heart to the core.