We arose early around 0700 through excitement and the need to have our cases down in the hotel lobby before 8am. Unexpectedly it was pitch dark outside and a rooster could be heard crowing to the rising sun.
Enthused and keen to get on the road we had a hurried breakfast and afterwards stood for a few moments gazing at the first marker indicating the direction we should follow. A photo opportunity to mark our beginning. We were joined by dozens of other walkers converging at this spot to continue on or, like ourselves, begin their journey, mostly Spanish but with a few Asians mixed through them. The Japanese are here in numbers along with their Nikon cameras and their intrusive paparazzi long lenses. A trigger happy people!
The evening before we had gone out and reconnoitred our route out of the city and also found a shop which opened at 0700 and where we could purchase our Camino walking poles which are a must according to the advice we were given.
It wasn’t long before we hit the outskirts of Sarria and headed off in to woodlands and country laneways. Following those in front with an eager step in our pace. The main roads are left well behind and as the sun rises the temperature also rises. Our destination is Puerto Marin. A small historic village / town 23km away.
We are in T-shirts, shorts and hiking sandals, barefoot – no white socks, and a hat. In our backpacks we carry cold wet towels in a container to be applied to hot necks and burnt faces when we stop for a break. Also a bandanna to help with the sweat. Two items my wife purchased while out shopping for our trip. A bottle of water, a few pieces of fruit scavenged from the breakfast bar, a change of footwear and clothing and of course the first aid kit full of blister patches, other padded plasters and painkillers.
Most of the Spanish are in branded hiking gear – breathe easy T-shirts walking alongside breathe easy long-sleeved shirts, long hiking trousers that can be zipped off at the knee in to shorts, and sturdy looking hiking boots or shoes. Their backpacks look bigger and seem to contain more stuff but we can’t figure out what the extras would be. Others are proper backpackers and carry their house on their backs and its contents. Boots or shoes hang from these rucksacks and we initially think that there is no room in the rucksack for such items but later on in the journey we learn the reason for carrying these on the rucksack and not in it.
As we pass by and are in turn passed by we learn to greet people with Buen Camino, literally translating in to ‘good way’ but I suppose a more appropriate translation being ‘have a good journey’ or words to that effect.
The shade of the woodlands and the high hedges along the laneways provide some protection from the beating sun but the heat is slowly beginning to burn the air and it becomes somewhat stifling in the woods where it cannot escape or mingle with the breezes coming off the hills. The landscape is very green and the plants and fauna are so similar to Ireland that you would swear you are walking down its laneways and not in Galicia.
The tracks are very dusty and vary from flat stony gravelly paths to bumpy and irregular earth paths eroded by rainfall rivulets meandering down their length and leave the walker dependent on - and thankful to have purchased - a stick to balance with. Oak trees are widespread and predominant and especially dominate the edges of the fields and the woodlands. These mix with eucalyptus trees and others such as pine and beech.
The fields are like Ireland’s, pretty much symmetrical in shape and hay lies drying in the sun while in others cattle graze, both milking and beef. Sweetcorn is growing everywhere, acres and acres of it. Barbed wire is prevalent, stapled to wooden posts and wrapped around stone posts, like those out of neo-lithic stone circles, not regular shaped and varying in heights. Field gateways are not enclosed with our common metal gates but consist of bailing twine and barbed wire twisted and tied together to block access and egress. They look like they were created by a drunken spider.
We pass through countless hamlets composed of cut stone walled dwellings with hexagonal shaped stone slates on their rooves, heavy looking and possibly cumbersome to work with. Small windowed dwellings with weighty looking wooden doors that hang listlessly having long since been given up by their hinges. Each farm dwelling has a strange building in its grounds. It is a house type structure, long and narrow, with slatted or perforated brick walls with two solid gables and a small door. They sit high off the ground on a flat stone or concrete slab that overhangs the supports of the slab … a sort of plinth. Some are ornate, carved from stone and have a religious / satanic symbols associated themes to them with crosses sitting atop the gable peaks or witches and are well cared for while others are in poor condition. Obviously the perforated bricks or slats are to allow air to flow through but the narrowness of the structure has me baffled as to what they are used for.
The hamlets are mostly abandoned. The economies of these communities being reliant on agriculture but now those holdings are too small to sustain a living and most and in some places all, have locked up and moved to the towns and cities. Those that remain, farm what holdings they have for they are a few yards in front of us on the downward slope of life and are too long in the tooth to consider moving and beginning again. Perhaps their poverty also explains the drunken spider webs. Their only children being their farm animals and for some reason those that remain keep dogs that are huge in size and girth – working dogs that also protect!
No children’s voices are heard or will be heard in these communities again. Some have weather beaten ‘For Sale’ signs hanging from their garden walls, their condition indicating the lack of interest. The incentive to buy being that of a cheap holiday home. Good luck to the estate agent on selling this as a holiday spot. They are desolate, lack public amenities and far from the main roads with no shops at all. But that may be its very appeal, an escape from the rat race … not mine.
Up and down hills and woodland climbs we walk. Conversations slowly trickle to a silence as our breaths labour under the lack of air and the heat and contemplation of our task consumes our minds. Larger groups continue to babble and we haven’t heard an English language voice all day – we are the minority.
Our legs are fine with only a few niggly aches and pains and we regularly stop to have our Camino passports stamped to prove we have passed through. These can be stamped at the many café bars strewn along the route or at official stamping posts such as very old stone churches, some Romanesque in style and extremely small – a dozen people would pack these pews. We require at least two stamps a day in order to qualify for the certificate.
As the day progresses the temperature hits 29°C and around 1230 we decide to stop for a lunch break. Fortune smiles on us and we manage to secure a table in one of the many cafes along the route. There are many hostel style cafes to stop at whenever you choose and water stops to fill up your bottles … On the Camino you are never alone! Backpacks are dropped on the ground and our backs are soaking with sweat. One walker has a complete negative of his backpack sweated on to the back of his T-shirt … straps, fasteners and all.
The view from the table is spectacular and the wooded valley stretches away ahead of us. A quick peruse of the menu and a cold beer for me and a glass of Rioja wine for the better half. This is where we discover that Rioja is served chilled here in Gallicia … perhaps it is in all of Spain!
We order sandwiches. Goats cheese, smoked onions, honey and mustard all in a bap of local crusty bread that looks like sour dough but isn't. Really tasty and most welcome. Throughout our break we people watch and notice for the first time that there are a lot of Spanish families on the Camino and the children don’t look too bothered about it at all. Some are still in push chairs and that must be tough. An exercise on its own. Cyclists have pulled in and are also taking a welcome break.
As I walk across the outdoor seating area heading towards the bar to replenish our glasses an English language voice shouts out that there is an ever-lasting Guinness pump in that bar. A direct reference to my Guinness hat. We get talking and the couple are from South Armagh of all places and are experienced Camino walkers. They hope to create a company that offers outdoor hiking holidays around Ireland and are keen to take note of our views so far. A while later they depart for they have a longer route to their end today so we say goodbye and Buen Camino. We don’t bump into them again.
Refreshed and water bottle replenished we set off again at our own pace for the final kilometres and of course others join us. Many pass us by but it is not a race, just a walk.
We meet our second English language speaker of the walk. Although Spanish, Isobella - who worked in London for a bank and is travelling with a group of 64 - speaks very good English. She is from Seville and is back living there retired after 20 years in London … she misses the seasons!
We eventually arrive at our destination and after crossing the lake on a modern bridge we face the daunting task of having to climb well-worn and very steep ancient steps to enter the town and seek out our lodgings for the night … the steps are an unwelcome daunting task but we succumb to their demands and ascend … very slowly on tired legs.
The town is old and beautiful. A long main street with colonnades lining both sides of it and only broken on the left side by the town square and the church. These, the colonnades, provide cool shade from the afternoon sun.
We find our hotel and it has swimming pool. For the first time in our lives we have a hotel suite for the night. Our own private sitting room adjacent to the bedroom. But we make haste down to the pool to cool off and rest.
Later, after the pool and before dinner, we take a short walk up the town to sit under the shade provided by the colonnades and have a few drinks and continue people watching.
After dinner Pablo the barman introduces me to Galician Poitín. I only have very small shot tasters which is enough as I don’t want to have to walk tomorrow with a hangover. Over the days we discover that the bar men speak relatively good English from having worked as waiters in restaurants in London.
Tomorrow we walk a mile further than the distance today. So that should be about 14.5 miles or so. We fall into bed exhausted but not before getting ourselves ready for the off in the morning … it’s only 2200.