DAY 36: Walking on Eggshells
The colossal gong of the monastery of Sobrado dos Monxes began to toll as we turned the corner and left the city behind. I could see the magnificent bell tower in the back of my mind, ringing hourly just above the left wing of the church that I had explored the day before. The thunderous knell resonated with the stone walls and echoed outwards to the muddy Camino path, its bewitching stretch of cloisters that held the secrets of souls from monks to nuns to royalty… finally fading away.
I looked up at the spitting sky with worry etched into my forehead. Yesterday’s rain storm was now a vivid nightmare that was haunting us all and the simple memory of the shrieking wind and unrelenting rush of water was enough to send chills down our spines. So we stepped lightly, keeping our heads down and our voices quiet, almost as if there was a great beast sleeping above us and the slightest wrong move would trigger its wrathful awakening. We walked on through the quiet bracken of the forests and I noticed with a twitch of worry that even the bugs and birds had taken shelter for another day. The cold veil of a slight mist scattered across the trees and our hearts momentarily seized with terror-
But then the sky held and I could feel the clouds laughing at us as we all sighed with relief. I shivered at a stray gust of wind and tried to further envelop myself into my raincoat. We were walking on eggshells, scurrying from undergrowth to undergrowth like an anxious family of squirrels who had forgotten to collect acorns for Winter. Danger lurked in every minute rumble of clouds and with every second that passed, the sky seemed to grow darker, an ominous sign of what was to come.
The kilometres stretched on and I couldn’t remember feeling more thankful than when the clock struck lunchtime and the town of Boimorto appeared on the horizon. Entering inside a roadside establishment called Cafe Villanova, we set down our damp gear and occupied a table. The cafe had a cozy familial feel and was filled with the elderly who were sitting on mahogany bar stools with their grandchildren, drinking shots of strong espresso. It reminded me overwhelmingly of a Sunday morning at the Hungarian Community Centre back in Melbourne with my grandma. The scent of sugar powder sprinkled over a homemade pastry, the rich buzz of conversation drowning out the small portable radios and their early morning broadcasts, the crocheted white curtains keeping the warmth within, and the unmistakable essence of cinnamon.
I don’t know if our tastebuds had simply deteriorated after over a month of Peregrino Menus or if Cafe Villanova had a fairy godmother working in the kitchen, but the food was absolutely spectacular. There was Tortilla de Española, Croissants, Patatas Fritas and Ensalada Mixta, all the usual fare for a Vegetarian Camino Pilgrim but somehow it was unlike anything we had tasted in 36 days. Dare I say it, it actually had a fine dining air about it.
It was only after we had finished our food and were staring down at our empty plates sorrowfully, which the waiter came to collect, that we saw the real fairy godmother behind the cafe. I was shocked to see a fully equipped commercial kitchen with a Chef and Sous-Chef working miracles inside. The family feel of the cafe had fooled us entirely. I have to say it is the best kept eating secret on the entire Camino del Norte, oops, have I just revealed it?
Returning to the road, we met up with Hanya, a kind and jocular Polish woman we had met the night before amidst pasta boiling in the kitchen at Sobrado Dos Monxes. Our feet pounded the tar path in the same rhythm and our conversations stretched out across the acres of Galician fields.
“It’s a shame the weather is so gloomy on our last day,” Hanya sighed.
“Last day?” I questioned.
I suddenly understood what Hanya was saying. It was with a melancholic pang that I remembered that this was our last day on the Norte track. Tomorrow, our Camino path would converge with the more popular Frances and we would walk the final two days as one of a much bigger crowd.
The rain began to drizzle but I no longer cared. This was our last day. Our last day… and I was going to enjoy it, rain, hail or shine. The golden wheat that lined the path turned amber as the drizzle transformed to a steady flurry. The road twisted and jolted up and down harsh inclines and to the part of me that loved reality television, it felt like one of the old Survivor episodes where the final three take a long hike through the surrounding countryside and light the torches of their fallen comrades into a fiery blaze. While of course none of our ‘comrades’ (fellow pilgrims) had ‘fallen’, our paths had indeed diverged until a thousand moments separated us from ever seeing them again. This was the very essence of the Camino, to live in the moment and enjoy the fleeting days, hours or even mere minutes that you have with the friends you make along The Way. Because you blink once, and they’re gone.
In truth, that was why our entry to the city of Arzua (our end destination for the night) had such a welcoming energy to its cobblestone streets. It was a checkpoint, a place where pilgrims’ journeys intertwined each other’s, just like the golden shell logo of the Camino. From here on out, there would only be one path, one distance, one destination. I looked back one last time at the dusty trails that echoed behind us, a single whisper of the path that was The Norte. Then I said goodbye.
Together with Hanya, we traced our way through the bustling city, backpacks of all shapes, colours and sizes occupying every street corner, their pilgrim owners sitting down to meals of foaming beer and plates of tapas. For us Norte pilgrims, who were accustomed to meagre Peregrino Menus and stealth camping if necessary, Arzua was like an exotic international metropolis, boasting hundreds of restaurants, shops and Albergues. Selecting one from our online Eroski Guide, we arrived on the doorstep of the Albergue Via Lactea, that boasted all the qualities of a hotel for a pilgrim-friendly price: spacious rooms, extensive kitchen amenities, prime location and unlimited hot water-
That last one got me. Unlimited hot water? Yeah right. It couldn’t be true, could it? Could it!? Turns out, it could. We danced around in the Albergue lobby, revelling in the simple luxuries while our Frances counterparts looked on in bewilderment.
Upstairs, we occupied our bunkbeds and started our customary routine to unpacking after a long day. Looking out the window at the far end of the room, I could see the concrete path that would soon transform to dirt and lead us out of the city tomorrow. Tomorrow, when there would be no more Norte. Tomorrow, when we would become one of the many, one of the crowd, surging ahead like a tidal wave destined for Santiago de Compostela. Yes, the road was beckoning, the road, 36 days in the making. The road… to the end.