Travel diary: Via de la Plata, week six

It’s been a week of endings and beginnings: we successfully finished our thousand-kilometre walk and celebrated ten years of marriage, and have arrived in our new home of A Coruña, where we plan to spend at least the next three months.

Monday 16/4: Since there was a hospitalero on-site, we made an early start to avoid being forcibly kicked out of the albergue — for the previous few days nobody had been around to care if we left half an hour after the official time of 8am. Unfortunately, Orense is a sprawling town, and we spent over an hour walking alongside a busy highway, followed by half an hour up a steep secondary road. Luckily, things improved after that, except that the bar we’d been looking forward to was closed; the track entered a forest and we left the sound of cars behind us.

We finally got our coffee at kilometre 16, and after that there was only seven kilometres to go to our destination of Cea. The track continued to be interesting, passing through small villages, over a cute bridge, and through more forest.

On the way to Cea

On the way to Cea

On arrival in Cea, we checked into the albergue then had lunch in a bakery/cafe, where we relaxed for an extra hour or so while waiting for the supermarket to open at 4.30pm. We spent the rest of the day back at the albergue, resting and chatting with the group of French teenagers who were also staying there.

Tuesday 17/4: It was drizzling slightly when we left Cea at 8:45, carefully taking the short route (14km) to Castro-Dozon rather than the one that detours past a monastery and adds 8km to the total.

Cea town square

Cea town square

Although the weather cleared and the conversation was pleasant, we were both ready for a cafe to appear at about kilometre ten. Unfortunately we had to wait until Castro, where we had a coffee and tried to decide whether to stay in the albergue there or go on to Laxe. Our various guides gave us all sorts of contradictory information, and we’d just decided to stay when we checked the weather forecast for Wednesday — rain. We decided to go on, having a long day on Tuesday and a shorter one the next day. The supermarket provided lunch food and some vegetables for dinner, and we ate sandwiches in the square before setting off again.

Sadly, despite the fact that the GPS had indicated that our destination lay at least 18km away, Craig still trusted the hostel ad that said that it was only 15km from Castro, and was bitterly disappointed when he realised he’d have to walk a fair bit more. He made this discovery in Xestas, where our guide had said there was a bar but all we could find was a tobacco shop with a table and chairs in it. I asked the owner if it was possible to buy wine, and he looked confused for a minute before disappearing out the back and returning with a bottle of red and a questioning look. We smiled and nodded and asked if we could drink it there, which was apparently fine; he found some glasses and we proceeded to drink the whole bottle.

This made the next leg of the walk quite enjoyable, despite it being the wettest part of the day. We’d dried off by the time we finally reached Laxe, anyway. We pottered around the empty albergue until about 7:30, when we cooked dinner and a group of three Portuguese pilgrims we’d seen in Orense arrived. We thought it would just be the five of us, but the hospitalera arrived at 8pm with bad news — a large group of school kids would be staying in the albergue too.

They arrived at nine and spent the next half-hour making as much noise as possible, then headed out for dinner, returning loudly at 11:40. It was annoying that the rule about being inside and silent by ten didn’t seem to apply to them, and even more annoying that the lights in the bedroom that we were sharing with the Portuguese were on a sensor, so that anytime someone got up or moved around in bed, the lights went on. These annoyances, and the fact that the beautiful kitchen was equipped with only a small pot, three spoons and a rusty pan, meant that we weren’t overly impressed with the albergue. But at least it was warm and we ended up sleeping well.

Wednesday 18/4: Since the normal rules didn’t seem to apply, we stayed in bed until after we heard the school kids leave at about 8:45, then had a leisurely breakfast in the kitchen before making a move at around 9:30. Since we’d changed our plan, we only had about 10km to walk, which was great because the weather was as dire as the forecast had predicted. We were both wet through within two kilometres, but the fact that it was a pleasant walk and the idea that it was going to be a short one kept our spirits up.

Linda on the road

Linda on the road

We arrived in Silleda at around midday and checked into a pension that had been over-advertised for the past hundred kilometres or so. Apparently its two parts are owned by different people: a man, who is responsible for the aggressive advertising, and a woman, who does the work of checking people in. Since we didn’t have a booking we chose to stay on the woman’s side, which was a good choice since there was only one other guest.

A quick trip to the supermarket stocked us up for the rest of the day, which we spent inside, in the warm, watching the rain fall and being happy not to be out in it. Craig cooked a tasty dinner and we watched a movie on the laptop before bed.

Thursday 19/4: The weather had improved dramatically from the day before, and our first leg of 7km was almost completely dry. We took a break in a cafe/bakery in Bandeiro, where we paid very little for coffee and a whole array of pastry snacks.

The next leg of the walk was unfortunately a lot wetter, with a sudden downfall soaking us in minutes. We waited out the second half of the squall in an oddly-placed bus shelter, and had completely dried off by the time we arrived in Seixo for our second break. We chatted for awhile with the Portuguese (who were already there) and just as we were about to go, our old friend Marina arrived. We put off our departure for a quick catch-up; it was interesting to hear what she’d been up to for the previous two weeks.

The last leg of the day was broken in half by a stop at the Ponte Ulla supermarket, since the town where the albergue is located doesn’t have a shop. After that the walk seemed like a bit of an effort, with the alternating sun, wind and rain making our clothing uncomfortable no matter what we did. But we made it, and had a tasty (if late) lunch in the well-equipped albergue, then relaxed before a pleasant (and also late) dinner.

Santiago fountain in Outeiro

Santiago fountain in Outeiro

Friday 20/4: We had to make an earlyish start if we wanted to make it to Santiago in time for the pilgrim mass at midday, so we set off at 8:05 and made good time until our first break an hour and a half later.

The first glimpse of the cathedral

The first glimpse of the cathedral

It hadn’t rained during the first leg, but the skies opened during the second section, and once again we were wet through. Luckily the drizzle eventually stopped and the sun came out to dry us off, and we made it to Santiago by 11:30. After the compulsory photos and videos were taken, we headed inside the cathedral for mass; it was totally packed and we had to stand at the back. It was a beautiful service; a nun sang and the sermon was good (it was strange to be able to understand it, such a contrast to our arrival four years ago), and at the end they swung the botafumeiro — a huge incense burner that is only brought out on special occasions or when someone pays €250 for it. I was very, very excited.

After mass we headed to the pilgrim office to get our certificates then had a menu del día in a cafe we’d seen on the way into town. Then we headed to our flash hotel, where we were told we’d been given the best room on account of it being our anniversary. It was the only room on the fourth floor, with gorgeous stone walls and sloping ceiling, plus views of both the old town and the outskirts of the city.

The goal -- Santiago cathedral.

The goal -- Santiago cathedral.

Since we didn’t have any suitable clothes for the nice dinner we planned to have to further celebrate our anniversary, we headed out to the shopping area to get some clothes. A couple of painful hours trawling the shops yielded some jeans, a shirt and a belt for Craig, and shoes, stockings and a blazer for me.

We’d been given a voucher for a drink and a tapa in a restaurant that’s part of the same group as the hotel, so after relaxing in comfortable surroundings for a few hours, we headed out to avail ourselves of it, and ended up having dinner there too — it was all delicious!

Saturday 21/4: All alarms were turned off, and we slept in as late as possible before heading out for a simple breakfast in a nearby cafe. Leaving there at about 11:30, we decided to wander past the parador to see if there was any places left for the pilgrim lunch, and we were in luck.

The parador hotel used to be a pilgrim hospital, and offers a free breakfast, lunch and dinner for ten pilgrims at each meal, which you can get on the first three days after having arrived in Santiago. When we arrived outside the garage, which is the meeting place, eight others were already waiting, so we had arrived at the perfect time.

A porter checked our certificates and wrote our names and ID card numbers in a book before writing out a coupon for us to give to the chef. Then we made our way through the hotel to the kitchen, where the chef served us up a generous meal of soup, meat and chickpeas, bread, fruit and wine — the same food that is given to the staff of the hotel. We ate in a small dining room on the first floor which is decorated with hand-drawn representations of the different Caminos, and it was a really enjoyable experience sharing a meal with other pilgrims, who all had different stories to tell about their pilgrimage.

Pilgrim meal in the parador

Pilgrim meal in the parador

We spent the afternoon wandering around the city; apart from looking at souvenir shops, we also visited the modern art museum and I had a look around the fresh-food market while Craig headed back to the hotel for a rest.

In the evening, we visited the pilgrim museum (which was, oddly, all in Galician), then met up with Marina and two other pilgrims (Liz and Christine) and had a beer with them. After that, we all headed to Manolo’s for dinner, where we ran into the Germans and a father and son from Belgium who were friends of Liz’s. It was a pleasant evening, but sad to say goodbye to people we’d seen a lot of over the past few weeks — especially Marina, since we actually started the walk on the same day as her.

Back at the hotel, we continued the Camino theme by watching The Way, a movie about a father who walks the Camino Frances after his son dies shortly after starting it. It was fun to recognise some uniquely pilgrim moments, although it didn’t all ring true.

Sunday 22/4: Sadly, our preferred breakfast cafe was closed and we had to wander a little to find another, after which we packed up and checked out of our lovely hotel. We stopped by the cathedral to see the botafumeiro swing again, then had hot chocolate and churros in the Valor cafe, then collected our bags and walked to the train station.

The journey to A Coruña was swift and pleasant, and we had a snack in the station cafeteria before being picked up by our Couchsurfing host Yolanda. She took us on a tour of the city, showing us the important sights and explaining not to try to use the sea as a navigating tool. Since the city is shaped like a T protruding into the ocean, this makes a lot of sense!

We spent the evening chatting with Yoli and her flatmate Amy, then headed out for a walk around the area and a light dinner of hamburgers.

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