A pilgrim's slow progress

Rob Gaisford seeks salvation in a Spanish stroll
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The Independent Travel
We stood still, eyeing one another warily and intensely, each waiting for the other to make the first move. The bull's horns gleamed, burnished bronze under the declining Spanish sun. The only cape I had was made of waterproof plastic, folded in my rucksack. I was an unwilling, unprepared toreador against one of nature's finest beasts. The same scene must have been enacted thousands of times over the centuries in this hot, unyielding land. The outcome could have been too horrible to contemplate had not a six-year-old boy appeared at that moment and ordered the animal into a nearby barn for milking.

I had come by sea from Plymouth to Santander and thence by train to Len to walk for some of the way along the Camino de Santiago. After 30 kilometres, I had reached Hospital de Orbigo, where I found this test of my manhood blocking the route. Her name was Margarita.

This village is on the old pilgrim route from the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela. Santiago, or St James, was not a great success at converting Spain, but the discovery of his body, several hundred years after his death, caused Santiago de Compostela to become an important centre of pilgrimage from all over Europe. Mine was intended to be a short walking holiday, not a pilgrimage, but I found myself drawn increasingly to the notion of reaching Santiago, and hurried calculations established that I could just do it if I walked 30km a day. Pilgrims have a certain status in that part of Spain - passing motorists beep horns in recognition and small children shout "Ole, peregrino!" My original, hedonistic motivation became a more ascetic determination to complete the journey.

I awoke early the next morning in my simple inn at Hospital de Orbigo, dislodged a dozy insect from my eye socket and let myself out. I made my way over the longest pilgrim bridge on the route. The sun was just rising behind me, lighting up the distant, misty hills and getting a welcome from crowing cocks and howling dogs. A church clock struck eight, twice.

A Spaniard, Jose, then a Frenchman, Jean-Louis, overtook me, walking briskly in contrast to my uneasy progress - the result of the previous day's exertions. "Thirty kilometres on the first day is too much," observed the latter.

At Astorga, I bought a double-length walking-stick adorned with the inevitable cockleshell and a large, hollow representation of a medieval water-bottle. After Astorga, the flat plain known as La Maragateria gives way to hillier country. There are long distances between villages.

After 30km, I reached Rabanal de Camino, where I was given a solicitous welcome at a hostel, and greeted with astonishment by Jose and Jean-Louis, who had overtaken me so long ago. There is a rigid grading system in Spanish hotels. The best are probably the comfortable, state-run paradors; the humblest are the simple fondas. A hostel is slightly more expensive and better furnished than a fonda. In this one, my room included half a bath. By walking up the wall above the taps, I could get most of my torso submerged. Bliss.

I took my stiff and painful leave just before dawn to start the ascent into the mountains to the west. Some 350 metres higher and 6km further on, my bruised and swollen feet led me past the deserted village of Foncebadan. I remembered that there was said to be an iron cross near here. Traditionally, pilgrims add a stone to the pile at its foot. Dutifully, I tossed a pebble on to what seemed a modest mound and passed on. A little further on, I was confronted by a giant pyramid of stones, spilling out on to the road. I hunted for another pebble, but earlier travellers had entirely denuded the ground of loose stones. I settled for replacing a dislodged rock.

The wind was howling over these hills and rain threatened as I reached the village of Marjarin. It is uninhabited save for Tomas, who, with his wife, runs a small refuge for pilgrims. He had seen me approaching and, as I turned off the road, he appeared at his door and rang a clattery old bell, shouting "Bienvenido, peregrino!" with such enthusiasm that further introductions were unnecessary. I accepted a coffee, which was a lukewarm liquid in a chipped tin mug. It was disgusting. Jean-Louis and Jose had already been there an hour and decided to set off again, leaving me to inspect some of the religious artefacts that decorated, and probably insulated, the walls. I went on my way and found, to my astonishment, that I was able to walk faster and more easily. After 20 minutes, I passed the others, explaining that I dared not stop and asking what they thought Tomas put in his coffee.

This burst of energy lasted several hours and saw me down the road that runs through the village of El Acebo to within sight of Molinaseca, where I found a room at Hostal El Palacio, beside the Romanesque bridge over the river Meruelo.

An early night, and then off again at eight the next morning, this time at a snail's pace as I tried to force my unhappy feet into service. After a couple of hours, their objections lessened and I picked up speed. I stopped only for coffee in Ponferrada and then hastened on again.

Flatter now, the road took me to the ancient village of Locabelos. I paused for a beer in an indifferent bar, where elderly men were playing a noisy gam e of cards, and then attacked the last section of the day's march, to Villafranca. By the time I got there, my blistered feet had all but beaten my pilgrim will. Then I rounded a corner and stopped in my tracks. The declining sun reflected from a gleaming tiled roof. On one side of the road stood a welcoming, only partly occupied parador: on the other, one of nature's weariest beasts. I gave in immediately.

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