Molinaseca >>> Villafranca de Bierzo (32.3km) >>> O Cebreiro (30.7km) >>> Triacastela (23.2km) >>> Sarria (18.8km) >>> Portomarin (22km)
= 133km (Total: 676.8 km)
Days 26 to 28 were by far the most challenging we have had on the camino so far. They were long days over steep terrain with extreme weather thrown in on top. We all suffered in our own ways and came through the tough moments quoting our new favourite phrases: ‘suffer gloriously’ and ‘no pain, no glory’. We laugh at the way we hobble and limp around the albergues. Every pilgrim who has been walking for weeks is the same. It is hard to imagine getting out of bed or standing up out of a chair without pain in every muscle. It is actually quite popular for people to start walking the Camino in the last couple of hundred kilometres as most can’t get enough time off work. So we are meeting fresh faces and reassuring new pilgrims that it is normal for their feet to feel like this, that it will get easier and it is true that the hard parts will become their best memories.
The weather hasn’t been kind to us for at least a week now. Every night we look up the forecast and it seems to be never-ending rain with a bit of snow or ice mixed in. Fortunately our gear has held up pretty well so our bags and bodies have remained dry. Adam and Jane have had no problems with their shoes, but mine were definitely letting me down.
Until yesterday I had accepted my shoes for what they were. Water vessels. I started each morning with a clean(ish), dry sock. After I attended to my blisters, I would wrap my sock-covered foot in a plastic bag and tape it. Then I would gingerly and painfully force it into my soaking wet shoes. My foot would stay comfortably dry for about an hour before the water crept in and before too long I would be squelching along with every step. At the end of the day I would take my shoe off, unwrap my waterlogged and blistered feet and massage pawpaw ointment into them. I would then rest my shoes up against a heater if there was one available in our albergue in the hope that they would be dry by morning. It all seems quite futile doesn’t it? Like why would I bother if my foot will get wet anyway? But it was my ritual and I would do it without fail, everyday.
After 30 days on the camino I have noticed that when life is simplified down to walking, eating and sleeping, rituals take on a whole new meaning. I have been asking other pilgrims and it is true, we develop these habits or a specific order in the way that we do everything. Everyone seems to have a ‘foot ritual’, a special order that we pack our bags in the morning, the number of stops we take in a day, the way we set up our bunk beds, how we unwind once arriving at the albergue etc. I guess it’s the same in everyday life -just more obvious when you have nothing else to do.
It rained almost the entire way from Molineseca to Villafranca. It was a long 30km and I was not in high spirits. My legs were giving me grief down near the ankles, I was finding it hard to get into my rhythm and my shoes were (of course) soaking. The landscape was rolling green hills and despite the rain, the scenery was beautiful. Every now and then we would have 5 minutes rest from the rain and could enjoy the views of rural Spain.
When we arrived in Villafranca we were utterly exhausted. We had walked almost 33km and all I wanted to do was crawl into my sleeping bag and cry. The albergue was a bit strange and after a bit of negotiating, we worked out that it was the town’s patron saint day (a holiday) and therefore almost nothing in the town was open. The albergue volunteers told us that they were cooking dinner for the other pilgrims, a Korean couple and a young Spanish woman but it would be served at 8pm. Because of the cold wet weather, we had drunk nowhere near enough water for the amount of kilometres that we walked and had also eaten very little food. Needless to say, we were starving and the thought of waiting another 4/5 hours until dinner was unbearable. But the meal was worth the wait. Steaming hot vegetable soup was followed by Adam’s favourite: San Jacob which consists of two slices of ham with cheese in the middle that has been battered and deep fried and looks like a shnitzle. Then we had creamy rice pudding for dessert. Breakfast the next day was even better. Picture homemade jams, soft poached eggs on slices of baguette, hot toast, pate, fruit, coffee… it was amazing. And boy did we need the energy hit for the day ahead.
If we thought day 26 was bad, day 27 to O Cebreiro was almost our undoing. To start with, the entire 30 kilometres was uphill. This meant it was a slow day which took us 8 hours in total and ended as the sun was going down in blizzard-like snow. The start of the day was beautiful. It went from clear views of the valley and Villafranca to picturesque snow covered landscape. We didn’t mind the uphill climb at this stage as it was keeping us warm.
We began the day with the Spanish woman, Laura, who had never seen snow before. So we played around in the snow for a bit and walked another 4 hours before the small hills became a serious mountain covered in thick snow all the way to O Cebreiro.
We were genuinely afraid during the last couple of kilometres when we lost sight of the road due to the depth of snow and strength of the wind was almost blowing us over. Adam and Jane were seriously worried and were thinking up contingency plans such as turning back or finding shelter. Visibility at this stage was at about 75 metres and the wind was very very strong. I had hurt my knee slipping in the snow and was almost in tears by the time we reached the town of O Cebreiro. It wasn’t until we were in our warm, clean albergue when we began to feel calm and started joking about the weather with other pilgrims who had similar days to us.
Day 28 to Triacastela was shorter but very cold coming down the mountain. About an hour in, a news crew screeched to a halt in front of us, pulled out a microphone and camera and interviewed Jane about the weather. “What do you think of the snow?” and “Are you scared?” were questions that didn’t instil much confidence in us about our situation.
But we carried on and after a few hours the snow and the cold released its hold on us and we embraced the green countryside and the rain.
We took it easy over the last two days kilometres-wise. We certainly didn’t have another 30km day in us and the weather was still swapping between light snow and rain. The fatigue from the three previous days slowed us down a bit and our legs were very sore.
As we walked into Sarria, up the hill towards the church, Adam spotted a hiking store. In the window was a wall of hiking shoes and he suggested that we have a look at buying a new pair for me. My first thought was, “What if I spend a ton of money on shoes that are just the same or even worse than my current ones?” But he was very persuasive with his reasons and after we settled into our albergue we walked back and I tried on some shoes.
We were successful. I bought a pair of Salomon gortex shoes (same brand as Adam’s) that were ten times more supportive than my other pair which had become painful with every step. They were guaranteed to be waterproof and they were definitely put to the test on our way into Portomarin.
I couldn’t believe the difference. Sixty percent of the 22km we walked today was wet mud or shallow streams. It drizzled consistently over the course of the day, rained for about an hour and snowed twice. Incredibly, my feet were dry and comfortable the whole time. I took my shoes off this afternoon in our albergue and my feet were dry. Even my blisters from the past few weeks have actually shrunk in size! I am over the moon. On the Camino the comfort of your feet is EVERYTHING. And mine are finally comfortable… touch wood!
Aside from the weather, the scenery today was beautiful. We passed through little farms and towns.
The town we are staying in tonight called Portomarin is a stunning little town next to a lake.
We are sitting in our albergue with our new friends Christian, the Italian man we walked with today and Laura. The weather outside keeps changing from sunshine, to rain, to snow and then back to sunshine. We have less than 100km to go before we reach Santiago and right now I feel as though I could dance the entire way there in my new shoes.<