Tuesday, March 3, 2015

Our Camino, Chapter 8: Cruz de Ferro to O Cebreiro

(This is the eighth installment in my newly edited story of walking the Camino de Santiago with my daughter in 2012. The seventh chapter is here.)

From the Cruz de Ferro, we headed downhill as the late-morning weather thickened. Then suddenly we took a wrong turn and found ourselves in Ireland. Driving rain and heathered hills had me walking the Dingle Way again.

As the storm intensified, we jumped inside the remarkable pilgrim refuge in Manjarín. A striking shrine to the Blessed Virgin Mary greeted us as was entered. Founded twenty years before by a pilgrim from Madrid and still operating on voluntary donations, the refuge had no running water or electricity. The hospitalier lived there with friends year-round.

It was mostly downhill from here, though that's not always a good thing on the Camino, where downslopes can be hardest on knees and hips, especially when you’re skipping over wet and slippery stone paths as we did through much of the rest of the day.

For lunch, we stopped to refuel at a bar in El Acebo, where pilgrims huddled around a natural fire drying out their hats and socks, as they might in a ski chalet during a blizzard. We passed a happy half-hour over boccadillos with our friends from Paris, Constant and Lucille. Constant continued his French history lesson begun with Henri Plantagenet three days before on the bridge at Hospital de Óbrigon. Then Marian and I continued the hard trek downhill to Molinaseca, where we gratefully took a private room looking out on the river, falling asleep that night to the sound of the running Rio Boeza.

On day 26, Marian and I ambitiously set our alarm for 5:15, but weren’t out of bed before seven. I was whipped, and Marian was happy to let me sleep, and sleep herself. We had a breakfast of coffee and pastry and headed toward Ponferrada, the last city of any magnitude before Santiago itself.

The name comes from the Latin for iron bridge. The existence of the bridge and of Ponferrada itself testifies to the historic importance of the Camino de Santiago. The first bridge was built across the rio Sil in the 11th century by a bishop, in order to help pilgrims on their way to Santiago de Compostela. A modern industrial city has grown up around the spot, oblivious to history. This is like the Camino itself. Most pilgrims are following a path to the grave of an Apostle without giving much thought apparently to the man-god he followed, Jesus Christ.

Our path west from Ponferrada was mostly uneventful. By now the companionable fun of the early weeks—our joyful travels with Simon and Sam, for example—had given way to a quieter, more introspective, sometimes melancholy mood. This Camino had been a precious chance to get to know my daughter as a young adult. Now in nine days, we would complete our Camino together, very possibly the longest stretch of time we would spend together for the rest of our lives.

Friday night in Cacabelos, Marian and I stayed in a model albergue. A shuttered 17th century church was surrounded by a horseshoe of 35 cabanas. In each were two beds, giving Marian and me a relatively private room. If every Camino refuge combined the same privacy (helping me sleep soundly) with community activity (which Marian craved) and economy (five euros each!), we would have stayed in albergues every night. But since Dad was paying for lodging and because I was both a light sleeper and a soft touch, we stayed in our share of hotels, hostels, pensions, and casas rurales.

It was in Cacabelos that we met our youngest fellow pilgrim, a twelve-year-old from Madrid walking with his mother. He looked like he was playing video games.

At 6 am Saturday morning, 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 on an ambitious goal: to shave as many kilometers as possible off the 38 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 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 had involved sharp climbs in the morning followed by punishing descents. The first two had been 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 this week, followed by a long, rainy descent.

The third such rise and fall occurred on this day, Saturday, June 9, and its value was entirely strategic, not symbolic. All day long today, Marian 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. By the time we had taken the recommended Paroled route to its peak at 930 meters above Villafranca del Bierzo (where I took the photo of Marian here) and then chattered downhill to an aching rest stop at Trabadelo (600 meters), I had only four concerns in the universe: water, food, body temperature, and dry feet. Deep thoughts were shouldered aside by animal survival.

O Cebreiro

Marian and I began bright and early Sunday morning. As we walked away from a bakery where we had enjoyed double coffees and free wifi, the sun looked like it might peek out from behind heavy clouds. I joked that it was the kind of weather meteorologists call unsettled. I didn't know how right I was.

By the time we had started up the rocky dirt path from Herrerias to La Faba, a steep incline through woodlands, rain was pelting down. Water flowing downhill toward us turned rocks into islands and the path into a river of mud. I had done a wash Saturday night in Vega de Valcarce and left my clothes out to dry, only to find that it had rained overnight and my wash was wetter Sunday morning than when I hung it out the night before. Now those sopping clothes were partitioned from the rest of my pack in a stuff sack, and I was wearing my last dry change. This included a Gortex jacket and pants.

By the time we reached La Faba the jacket had made a mockery of Gortex’s supposedly breathable watertightness. The jacket had breathed all right, sucking buckets of water onto the rest of my clothes. At the bar in La Faba, I stripped to a tee shirt and hiking shorts, even though I was chilled to the bone and there was no discernable central heating in the place. When I put my jacket back on for the next stage of our climb to O Cebreiro, it was like wrapping myself in a shag rug that had been left to soak overnight in ice water.

We arrived at the top with ten minutes to spare, having targeted the noon mass in the Iglesia de Santa Maria Real. Built originally in the ninth century and lovingly maintained today, it is the oldest church on the Camino. For Marian and me, it was among the most beautiful we have visited. I drew a sketch of the sanctuary from our pew at the back on the right.

The thought that Catholic pilgrims had been worshiping here for over one thousand years was moving to me. A Franciscan monk prepared the altar before the mass and also tended a small welcome office at the entrance. To the right of the sanctuary was a statue of the Virgin and Child from the twelfth century, an object of great veneration for the parishioners. During the mass, no collection was taken before communion. Instead, the locals lined up in front of the Virgin after mass and placed their offerings in a box at her feet.

In a side chapel were a chalice and paten associated with a miracle that had taken place here, at which the Virgin was said to have bowed her wooden head. What touched me more than statue, chalice, or paten, however, was a pew set up before this chapel. Arranged in front of the pew on a long lectern were open Bibles in many languages, labeled Korean, Chinese, Arab, Catelan, Gallego (the language of Galicia), Castellano (what we know as Spanish), Basque, Danish, Portuguese, Italian, French, Polish, Greek, Slovak, English, Bulgarian, Hungarian, Dutch, and German. There was also a children’s Bible in Castellano and, largest of all, a complete Old and New Testament in Braille. I picked up the book labeled Ingles, a copy of the Navarre Bible reader’s edition of the Gospels and Acts of the Apostles. Alert to the significance of the page where the Bible fell open, I read eagerly at first and then with something like remorse. It was Luke 22:47–62, with its stories of the arrest of Jesus, courtesy of Judas, and Peter’s denials.

Thank God for Marian. After using her fluent Spanish to find us another perfect nest for the night following mass, she took care of her old man by finding a dryer in the municipal albergue up the road and putting my wet clothes into it, then retrieving them an hour later. Meanwhile, fortified by a picnic lunch in our room where I sat huddled in a blanket, I had a deep ninety-minute nap. By the time I woke up, Marian herself was settling in for a rest.

I headed out onto the very short main street of O'Cebreiro, where I was thrilled to find my friend Christian from Lausanne and his traveling chum, Martino, from Italian-speaking Lausanne. We passed a pleasant quarter-hour catching up. All of us planned to arrive in Santiago in time for the pilgrim mass the following Sunday. So, God willing, we would meet again. Against the unlikely chance that this was our encounter, Christian and I exchanged e-mail addresses. Then I went off to visit Santa Maria Real once again.

(Continue reading chapter 9 of this narrative here.)

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