Sunday, June 10, 2012

Camino de Santiago, Day 27: Cacabelos to Vega de Valcarce

Friday night in Cacabelos, Marian and I stayed in a model albergue. If every pilgrim refuge combined the same privacy (which helps me sleep soundly) with community activity (which Marian craves) and economy (five euros each!), we would have stayed in albergues all along the Camino. But since Dad is paying for lodging and is both a light sleeper and a soft touch, we've stayed in our share of hotels, hostels, pensions, and casas rurales.

At the municipal albergue in Cacabelos, a shuttered 17th century church is surrounded by 35 cabanas built in a horseshoe. In each cabana are two beds, giving Marian and me a relatively private room—though the cabanas have no ceilings and are not insulated from each other, so lights and sounds from our neighbors spilled into our space. Behind the church, inside the base of the horseshoe, are stone picnic tables under cover and all the minimum necessities of albergue living: laundry sinks, clothes-drying racks, vending machines with passable café con leche, and toilets and showers, segregated for damas and caballeros. The place even had wifi, although the signal was so weak that before the 10 pm curfew about six of us were huddled around the hospitalero's office, source of the signal. We included a German woman Skyping in a whisper and the youngest pilgrim we have met on the road to Santiago, a 12-year-old from Madrid walking with his mother. He looked like he was playing video games.

This ideal albergue granted us a perfect night's sleep, and we were both up by 5:07 Saturday morning, by Marian's reckoning. At 6 am, when the hospitalero emerged bared-chested from his cabana to unlock the gates, Marian and I and a lone Asian trekker were waiting at the door. So we got an early, well-rested, and optimistic start. Our goal was to shave as many kilometers as possible off the 38k that lay between us and the last sharp peak on the Camino, O'Cebreiro. The gateway to Galicia stands at 1500 meters above sea level, while Cacabelos is a thousand meters lower. Reaching O'Cebreiro by Sunday we would be on track to arrive in Santiago de Compostela exactly a week later, on Father's Day. Since the last 10 kilometers to O'Cebreiro are an uninterrupted uphill climb, we resolved to get as close to the base of the climb on Saturday as possible, walking as much as 28 kilometers.

What we forgot in our optimistic plan was that the hardest days of the Camino have involved sharp climbs in the morning followed by punishing descents. The first two were days of significance: our maiden trek out of St. Jean Pied de Port on May 14, up and over the worst of the Pyrenees to Roncesvalles; and our climb to the Cruz de Ferro on June 7, followed by a long, rainy descent through "Ireland." The third such rise and fall was today, Saturday, Day 27, and its value was entirely strategic, not symbolic.

So by the time we had taken the recommended Pradela route to its peak at 930 meters above Villafranca del Bierzo and then chattered downhill to an aching rest stop at Trabadelo (600 meters), I had only four interests in the universe: water, food, body temperature, and dry feet. The deeper thoughts and even melancholy of the previous few days were cast aside in favor of animal survival.

Thank God for Marian. Whether going up or down or straight ahead, I encourage her to go at her own pace, which is seldom slower than my own unless she has engaged a friend in conversation behind me. All day long today, she walked ahead alone, with an inspiring spring in her step, while I pulled myself uphill with my staff then used it to brace my descent.

When the afternoon wore on and I was ready to call it quits, she gently refused my suggestion that we sleep at the truck stop in La Portela de Valcarce and egged me on me through the final 3 kilometers into Vega Valcarce. (The two Valcarce villages are linked by the rio Valcarce.) Then at the entrance to Vega, she opted out of the first casa rural because the vibe wasn't right, though I would have happily stopped there. Finally, with her positive attitude and fluent Spanish, she found us a room in a casa rural closer to the church. Here, the elderly owner, Emilia, noticed a prayer card from Lourdes stuck in Marian's passport and volunteered that she and her older sister, who stood by silently on a cane, had been to Fatima four times. Emilia then told us about mass times in O'Cebreiro tomorrow, before I collapsed in a nap.

Making it to Vega today Saturday meant that on Sunday morning we would have only 11.6 kilometers remaining. According to Emilia, that would give us plenty of time to make the noon mass in O'Cebreiro. Exactly one week later, we hope to attend the daily mass for pilgrims at the cathedral in Santiago.

[NOTE: This series of posts on my Camino continues here.]

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