Sarria to Portomarín (22km)
Monday, 1 October, 2012
The objective of most pilgrims on the Camino is to reach Santiago and obtain a Compostela, a certificate stating that the holder has completed at least the last 100 km on foot or 200 km on bicycle.
The evidence for the claim is the credencia or passport, which should contain stamps from at least each place where one has spent the night. For those who declare that they completed the camino for religious or spiritual reasons, the Compostela is in Latin, and it has somewhat different wording in Spanish, for those who completed it for cultural or historic reasons.
The Compostela is not an indulgence, nor is it a pardon for sins, nor is it a pass to heaven. It is just a certificate.
So given that Sarria is the first town just beyond 100 km from Santiago, I expected to find a horde of ‘tourist pilgrims’ when I set out the next day.
I saw almost none. I suspect that I had started out in advance of the crowds.
For the first time on my Camino I had emerged to thick fog. It was not an impenetrable ‘pea-souper’ of my 1960’s days in London, but thick nevertheless.
Once in the countryside, one could see barely twenty metres and one had to be aware of the markings on the walls and on rocks displaying the path. There was a blanket of silence laid over the countryside and the air was dripping with moisture. The birds were silent.
But as the path ascended, the fog gradually thinned, and suddenly one was clear, and in a most beautiful countryside. It reminded me so much of my native Ireland; emerald green, rolling hills, small fields fenced with stone walls and scattered stone farm houses and outbuildings, all looking as if they had emerged out of the land.
All day I walked through similar country, until later in the afternoon the path descended to a deep and wide river valley, and across a huge bridge. On the other side, up a long series of stone steps and a steep road, lay the attractive town of Portomarín.
Portomarín to Palace do Rei (26km)
Tuesday, 2 October, 2012
I set out at about 08:30 and soon realised that something had changed; where I would normally see a handful of other pilgrims, there were now dozens and dozens of them, and they kept coming; they seemed to be deserting Portomarín like rich French fleeing from M. Hollande’s tax collectors.
And because I walk rather slowly, I was being constantly passed, and just about everyone said ‘Buen camino‘, ‘Hola‘, ‘Buenos dias‘ etc. After a while responding politely every few minutes started to become irritating and I took to saying nothing and just raising my hand. Before the morning was far gone I just was plain rude and ignored them.
And so many, seeing me limp, wanted to offer me advice and administer first aid and would not accept my response of ‘No es nada’ or when quite frustrated ‘Déjeme tranquilo por favor’. So many did not seem to understand my rule of the road; that one does not offer help, unless asked. The discomfort and pain are an integral part of the penance.
Almost as irritating were those who carried on a conversation in loud booming or quack-quack voices and moved along only marginally faster than I was able to. I could not escape their inane chatter; what a load of utter crap seems to constitute the conservation of so many people.
And to top off my irritation along came a big black guy with a huge device on his shoulder, playing rap music at discotheque decibels. It was all becoming too much for me and I was being quite unpleasant.
But by then I had realised where all those people had come from; they were the ‘Tourist Pilgrims’ who walk the last 100km to get their Compostela, whatever that may mean to them. They start at Sarria, most on Saturday or Sunday and take five days to get to Santiago and then back to work the following Monday. I had unwittingly caught up with the hordes.
I suspected that my last few days to Santiago would be less aggravated if I slowed down and let them get well ahead, for I was rich in time.
Of course I realized that I was being rather arrogant and was feeling superior to the ‘virgin pilgrims’. My reaction was similar to that which I have when on a train and stuck close to someone talking on a telephone in a loud voice and making call after call.
It seemed that here was not likely to be much peace and solitude during the last kilometers to Santiago.
But it occurred to me that the noisy pilgrims needed to pay a little more penance, rather than just strolling along in beautiful weather, having a social fun week. What was required was a thorough drenching for a few hours with strong cold winds; that would soon quieten them down.
And behold, my unspoken thought was soon a reality; within ten minutes the sky darkened and the rain started, gentle at first but soon more penetrating. The raucous laughter and inane conversations ceased and the heads dropped.
And when I went to bed that night it was still raining heavily.
Welcome to a pilgrimage.
Palace do Rei to Melide (15km)
Wednesday, 3 October, 2012
When I left Palacio do Rei, it was not yet light. It was still raining steadily and the air was quite cold. I reasoned that the tourist pilgrims would not leave before they had finished their breakfast, and in northern Spain there are not many bars or restaurants that open much before 08:00. So I had at least two hours’ head start and I only intended to walk half the distance to Arzúa.
Once up and over the ridge, the rain stopped, and shortly after the sun appeared. The undulating walk to Melide was pleasant and I did not stop, nor did I see many people. My plan of avoiding crowds had worked well.
I arrived in Melide around lunchtime and a very helpful local directed me to a comfortable hotel within sight of the pilgrim path. Later I watched the hordes struggling up the hill, with another 15 km to go.
I had a good dinner, watched Real Madrid thrash Ajax, and slept like a log.
Melide to Arzúa (15km)
Thursday, 4 October, 2012
That morning I left the hotel feeling so completely relaxed, and I had a perfect five-hour walk through priceless country. I even had two stops for coffee and croissant. I saw nobody on the path for the first three hours, and after that only a handful of pilgrims.
Not far from Arzúa I stopped for a drink of water. Just as I put down my pack there was a loud crack, and a branch came crashing down on the path, no more than five metres away from me. I pulled the branch to the side of the road and continued the rest of the way to Arzúa.
Later in the afternoon I was in Arzúa, sitting in the sun outside a little bar, having a cold beer. On a pharmacy sign I could see that it was 20°C and the time was 18:30. The bells of the church across the road had just tolled for the half-hour.
Compared to the cold dank morning of the previous day, it felt positively idyllic.