Saturday morning. I’m sitting in a lounge at our hotel. It’s 6:15am and no one is stirring. Seven days from today, we’ll be in Santiago de Compostela and will have completed the Camino Frances.
A recurring theme of our journey so far has been the challenge of the last mile. It is always the hardest. After a day of walking, the destination village is in sight and every ache and pain intensifies. You desperately want to run to the town just to get those last steps over with as quickly as possible. Of course, there is no running, speeding it up, or shortcut. Each step must be completed.
As we’ve gotten closer, I’ve begun to experience a desire to accelerate for the final destination. Perhaps we should push further on a few days so that we can finish faster? I suspect more than a few peregrinos are experiencing this short timer’s syndrome. As we near our objective, we become impatient to complete it. We start to think of things past the end. The danger becomes that we race past the final opportunities and experiences. For me, this is happening.
Yesterday was one of the worst days yet. It was another “Just. Keep. Walking.” day. After a physically and spiritually beautiful day before, Friday, November 1, took us to another plane of discomfort. The first half of the day was spent in steady rain winding through Ponferrada (a city of 70,000 that barely got a glance from us) and the seemingly endless series of suburban additions to it on roads that were narrow and busy with traffic. On one particular stretch, I noticed a car racing up behind us, literally pointed at our narrow bit of pavement on the left hand side of the road. I waved my arms to make sure he could see us through the rain. He stopped right next us, rolled his window down, and asked what the problem was – of course, I could only understand every other word. It was all I could do not to drag his smugly smiling face out of that little burnt orange Maserati and toss him in the mud. He laughed at me and said there was plenty of room, then sped off to terrorize the next group of pilgrims.
That driver’s sister must have been working at the cafe we stopped at for lunch as she seemed determined to punish me for my poor Spanish. I had to laugh as we sat there, soaked and tired, and she proceeded to tell me that everything on the menu about which I inquired was not available. The good news? We missed the torrential downpour outside and the rain lightened for the second half of the day. Silver linings!
Walking in the rain is challenging. However, the real issue with yesterday’s walk was that it was really long, about 20 miles and much of it was on or along roadways with significant volumes of traffic. Yesterday was also All Saints/Souls Day in the Catholic Church – a major holiday in Spain. Typically, things are pretty dead from about 2pm to 5pm. Not yesterday. In town after town, families were headed to church and then having large gatherings at the restaurants in and around every town we walked through. We were delighted to see such participation in this important holiday, however, we were a bit overwhelmed by how actively it was celebrated.
Fortunately, we were able to walk through some beautiful stretches, safely away from all of the traffic. The Bierzo region apparently has a temperate microclimate that makes it quite good for growing grapes. Though out of season now, the vineyards were a welcome contrast and the hillsides afforded great views of the surrounding vistas. We encountered Bert and Rudy at various points along the way today as well as Marina, our older friend from England. We actually ran across Marina high in the mountains the day before; she has a wonderful knack from finding scenic places to rest. We took the time to make proper introductions at that point and reminded her we had been seeing her off and on since our first encounter outside of ZubirI, now almost a month ago. We did not ask, but we believe Marina was the woman who was rumored to have gotten lost and taken a tumble on the descent into Roncesvalles.
Along today’s route, I noticed a number of abandoned factory buildings. They are are no less haunting and sad looking here than they are at home. Massive cathedrals of a different type reflecting another era. As I looked at them, I could imagine the devastation their departures caused. Two major ones that We saw did not look that old.
We took a detour late in the day to get off of the highway. We were both desperate to get away from the traffic and the extra 1.5km seemed worth it. We literally followed the rainbow. Our detour had some challenging hills but the vineyards were a welcome reprieve. Other than some sprinkles, the rain also held which was a major blessing. Winding back along the country road, we came to a small village that was the saddest community we’ve yet seen in Spain. Valtuille de Arriba looked lifeless and run down. There was a sign for bar and for a cafe but both were closed – I assumed for the season. The narrow streets of the village was lined with empty homes that were falling apart. The village sat in a valley and as the sun began to set behind the hills rising around it, the light gave the community a very eerie look. We found a bench to take a break but neither of us wanted to stay for long.
We climbed out of Valtuille and were able to say our daily Rosary as we approached Villafranca del Bierzo, a charming town nestled at the confluence of the Burbio and Valcarce Rivers. According to legend, its Iglesia de San Francisco was founded by St. Francis of Assisi during his pilgrimage to Santiago. It was late in the day when we arrived and we, literally, limped the remaining distance to our hotel, Parador de Villafranca del Bierzo. We started walking at 8:20am and arrived at 4:30pm. The hotel is lovely and we spent about an hour massaging each other’s feet and calves before heading down to the bar. Everything was hurting today. We waited for the restaurant to open at 8:30pm and had an amazing dinner. Much needed after our long day.
There are a few 30km legs of the Camino and, until yesterday, we had split them up. Today was supposed to be another one but we are going to shorten it and make up the distance on some shorter days ahead so we can stay on schedule. Twenty miles is too long. There was no time to stop and enjoy much of anything and we were too tired to move beyond our hotel once we got into Villafranca. From here, our distances will be more comfortable.
The danger now is remaining patient through our final days of the Camino de Santiago. There is still much to see and experience as we enter Galicia and the final stretch to Santiago. The risk of short timer’s is missing those little things that bring joy and discovery along the Way: conversations, stories, and connections, in addition to the many sites and the history of each place we visit. We are ready to be home but remain committed to finishing our journey and staying open to what lies ahead.