In search of the pilgrim way
Monday 20th October - I have stopped noting the number of days out of Ireland. Not a conscious decision but probably not a bad idea either.
I think that tomorrow, the 21st, is the day I arranged to meet a friend from Kerry, at the right hand side of the main cathedral door in Santiago de Compostela at two o'clock in the afternoon. The agreement was preceded by quite a considerable amount of alcohol consumption and therefore was made casually and laughingly, during my last week in Kerry. I do really wonder though if he will be there. I figure I wouldn't bet on it (In January I talk to him again and discover that he did actually make it, all be it at four in the afternoon on the Tuesday. He drove down from Santander in a big old Mercedes, which he parked in the square in front of the cathedral "…alongside some other cars parked there". When he returned two hours later, his car with his entire luggage and passport and near everything else was gone. He went to the police to try and report the "theft" only to discover that it was they who had towed it away and it cost him the equivalent of £60 to get it back)
I hear on the radio that the International whaling commission is meeting in Monaco to discuss an amendment to global whaling policy. The amendment has been proposed and sponsored by Ireland, which strikes me as an unusual role for my country to play in International affairs (I'm not quite sure why). The amendment proposes the limitation of whaling to within three hundred kilometres of coastlines, thereby effectively making the high seas whale sanctuaries, as the Antarctic Ocean already is. Though I listen for days afterwards, I never actually find out the eventual outcome of the negotiations, though I do hear the following day that certain tribes of native Americans are pushing for special concessions for themselves.
Today I manage to cover 58.42 miles which takes me over the one thousand total mileage mark and it doesn't turn out to be anywhere nearly as momentous as I'd imagined. But it does certainly instil a good sense of progress and achievement. And that is very important to me at this stage.
One can develop some very strange habit and superstitions while cycling alone. Over the past couple of days, out of a dilemma brought about from indecision in choosing a restaurant along the road for lunch, I fell upon the notion that I would firstly cycle twenty miles and then call at the first restaurant on the right hand side of the road after this point. The odd thing about it is that the majority of restaurants on the road south to Leon appear to be on the left-hand side of the road. Anyway, as fate would have it, both Sunday and today, this method of choosing my place of calling for lunch has left me in wonderfully rustic and authentic local restaurants, as opposed to the major conveyer belt type restaurants catering predominantly to the passing trade.
My arrival in Sunday's restaurant, where in the late afternoon there was only me and the two proprietors in evidence, caused me to interrupt their viewing of an old black and white dubbed western. At first the landlady cum waitress cum cook (it being that sort of unassuming place) came to me with a notebook and proceeded to rhyme off the menu options in rapid Spanish. All I could do was shrug and attempt the most puzzled look I could summon up. So she goes back behind the bar and rummages about, to eventually emerge with a quite extensive list of food in four languages, from which the options on offer on the menu were indicated by biro ticks.
For starters I choose the soup and for main course; pork which, from the motions of my friend, I understand to be either the shoulder or back of the pig. Before the soup arrives, a big basket of delicious coarse white bread is set before me and my request for "vino per favor" is answered by the production of a half-full bottle. The great big dish of soup turns out to be one of those wonderful concoctions swimming with pasta and meat and vegetables, which require as much eating as drinking. The main course turns out to be what seems like deep fried pork ribs, served with real decent chips and a second basket of bread. For dessert I have a plain and simple, but delicious, creme caramel.
Today's similarly chosen affair turns out to be even more enjoyable. The "Restaurant" this time, for all the world, resembles a 1960's prefab, all steel framed partitions and glass. This time my request for vino causes a whole bottle to be produced. As regards a menu, it seems to be non existent. You get whatever is going, which again turns out to be a wonderful, substantial soup very similar to yesterday. The main course appears before I've even finished the soup. I'm not exactly sure what it was but it looked like lamb served on a bed of what seemed to be toasted aubergines. Accompanying the meal were great, big, griddle toasted, pancakes, which were similarly delicious. Unsure as to the arrangement with the wine, I opt to finish the entire bottle "Just to be on the safe side". This, not surprisingly, leaves me in high spirits departing the restaurant with a full stomach and a warm hazy alcohol induced glow about me.
Arriving at the restaurant with sock and shoes soaked through, I had changed into woolly socks and boots before dinner and my feet are now nicely warm, a very significant factor in preserving my now intoxicated, overall comfort.
Hitting the road again, I get a considerably painless and enjoyable mileage out of the bottle of wine. I sound out my repertoire of Paul Brady and Christy Moore songs at full voice. God knows what the locals made of "The Craic was ninety in the Isle of Man" and "Crazy Dreams". Incidentally, to return to this subject of songs that come to mind along the road, increasingly for the past number of days the tone has been Christy Moore, not surprisingly including Viva Le Quinta Brigata, Paul Brady; Crazy Dreams and The Island and Chris de Burgh of old including, also not unexpectedly, The Spanish Train "… that runs between, Guadalquavir and Old Seville."
On my leaving the restaurant the bar-staff enquire where I'm heading and I reply that I'm searching for the Camino de Santiago, which I hope to join up with today. They confirm that it's approximately 30km further south. 35km later however and sober again there is still no sign of the pilgrim path. I am beginning to suspect that I may have crossed it and accordingly begin mentally drafting a second letter to the Spanish ministry of culture, on the subject of inadequate signposting of the Camino de Santiago.
When I've almost given up hope, I enter the small town of Carrion les Condes and there encounter the first signs for the Camino, amidst a maze of back streets. I follow it out of town for four or five miles, by which time the evening is growing quite dark and so I opt to stop for the night on a grassy verge, alongside the Camino, as it runs through farmland, half a mile from the nearest house. For half an hour after dark, I lie watching the stars and listening to the surrounding sounds of wildlife, and as my imagination runs free, I really believe I can sense the ghosts of a thousand years of pilgrims, passing by the door of my tent and bidding me good fortune on my trek.
Tuesday 21st October:
The Camino is by no means smooth going. For the first five miles today, I follow a very stony path through farmland before it eventually joins up with N120. However, three miles later, it again resumes its course through farmland and before long, I am literally wading through six inches of the type of dauby mud which they still use for making bricks and wattle in this part of the world.
This terrain has begun to take an obvious toll on the bicycle. For some days I have been concerned about the wheels. The front one has started emitting an alarmingly crackly sound, which smacks of worn bearings, whilst the rear has already used up my ten spare spokes and is now requiring four more, which I am compelled to procrastinate about until I reach a bike shop to buy some. As the day progresses, the warp and wobble of the rear wheel becomes increasingly worse. In the late afternoon a very noticeable fracture has become evident in the rim and I begin to pray to St. James to just allow me to get to Leon, only twenty-five miles distant, where I now acknowledge that I shall very likely have to buy a new wheel.
Over the next ten miles, it is with some considerable tension that I nervously coax each additional mile out of the now obviously sick wheel. It seems somewhat ludicrous that I should be so concerned about individual miles after having travelled over 1,100 to get to this point. As the warp becomes so bad that the rim starts rubbing on both sides of the frame, I am compelled to stop for delicate adjustments with increasing frequency.
Finally, about a mile outside the small town of Mansilla de las Mulas, I stop to make one more such adjustment and notice with alarm that the rim is in one place almost completely fractured. In a bid to rectify the situation I loosen all the surrounding spokes completely hoping that by relieving the pressure, the two parts of the rims might somehow click back into place.
But it is too late. Less than twenty metres later the wheel collapses with a sickening crunch of mangled spokes.
I think I spend the first ten minutes afterwards just standing and staring at the wreckage, with absolutely no idea what to do. Then I sit down beside the bike for another five minutes in despair with my head in my hands. My forlorn look does nothing to invoke the pity of passing motorists but a group of elderly ladies on their way to visit the nearby graveyard cross the road and engage me in uncomprehandable conversation and try to flag down passing cars to come to my assistance but it proves futile. They confirm that there is a bike shop in the town and give me directions that I vaguely understand. So I head off walking, with the tyre around my neck and the wreckage of the wheel under my arm.
An hour later, after some lengthy sign language and gesturing in the town’s tiny bike shop, I emerge with a basic new chromium wheel and a new gear block since my existing block doesn't fit. I've also had to buy a new tube since the existing one has exploded in the wreckage. The incident has cost me 6,700 pesetas and delays my arrival into Leon until two hours after dark.
Tomorrow I must make some subtle adjustments to the new wheel to stop it from rubbing against one side of the frame. But tonight I'm splashing out on a meal in an award winning restaurant in Leon called the Bodega Regia, because I feel that I've earned it and deserve it (And I'm feeling a bit sorry for myself too!).
Wednesday, 22nd October: Leon to Santa Catalina de Somoza:
Tonight I'm camped in a green open air square adjacent to the official pilgrim's hostel or Alberge Municipal of Santa Catalina de Somoza, which I was denied access to by the caretaker. I found him in the town's pub and he refused me on the grounds that I didn't have a pilgrim’s creditental and a series of stamps. This all seems somewhat ironic when I cite my mileage of the past three weeks. In my trek from Roscoff, I have probably travelled further than the entire length of the Camino. I did suspect that I would need the creditental to gain admittance, but it's been difficult (and I've been lax) in seeking information on how one actually gets their hands on such a credential. The information is certainly by no means openly publicised along the route, probably with good reason, as I expect this would leave it open to abuse.
I dine quite royally, fillingly, and certainly wholesomely on great big chunks of coarse white bread served with a quite delicious salami and lumps of Irish cheddar cheese, which I bought in some big supermarket yesterday. Along with all of this I enjoy a very acceptable local red wine, on special offer at 100 pesetas a bottle. You can't go wrong at that price!
This site is maintained and updated by Peter Jordan,
Last Updated 24th March 2001
© Peter Jordan, 2001