Anyone who’s walked the Camino Frances will recognise the scene: between five and six o’clock in the morning in the crowded dormitory of an albergue. It starts with the flashing of a torch or headlight which is soon accompanied by a fumbled rustling as the guilty parties try to smother the sound of their packing. In doing so, of course, they only manage to exacerbate the situation, it’s a comedy ‘shush’ that merely serves to waken anybody who hadn’t already been disturbed by this madragudal fracas. If I were to draw up a top-ten list of the things I really hate about the Camino Francés – to be honest, I’d struggle to find more than five – this would be probably be number one. It’s not a fucking race!
Really? The way I hacked along the penultimate 50k to Santiago two years ago you’d have been forgiven for thinking it was the Galician marathon.
But there’s none of that malarkey this time around, mostly because on the Ruta del Ebro there aren’t any albergues. The only one I came across was fully booked which means I’ve been ‘forced’ to stay in pensiones, hotels and hostales; it’s a cross I’m learning to bear, with great sufferance, obviously.
Needless to say it brings out the gyrovague in me. You enter your room and as soon as the door’s safely shut you overturn your rucksack and tip its contents onto the floor. Bliss! Yes, I know full well what the Bible says, that cleanliness is next to godliness but I’m a feminist, postmodern, queer theologian and I operate under a hermeneutic of suspicion so anything goes. Well, more or less.
In the borderlands of Catalunya and Aragon, hotels and pensions are cheap but they’re also thin on the ground; in Fabara there were precisely none, the Pension Ca Oliver having given up the ghost and closed down. You can hardly blame Oliver, if, indeed, that was the proprietor’s name; Fabara’s not quite a one horse town, there’s two bars, a supermercado and a dancing school but that’s about it. Apart from the pigs.
Over breakfast Sofía, a vet from Zaragoza, tells me that the area’s economy – and probably her job – is based on pig-rearing. Teresa has the only rooms for rent in town, but at 20€ a night including breakfast it’s exceptional value. Travelling vets and pilgrims walking in the midday sun, we’re all itinerants under the skin, and we rely on the likes of Teresa to keep us nourished and safe from the elements.
Five days later and everything has changed. Same country – just about – but a different camino and a different climate: España verde, green Spain. Here it rains, de vez en cuando – from time to time; the forecast for the next few days isn’t great, and I’m supposed to be heading into the mountains. I didn’t time that very well, did I?
But for the moment, in the well-to-do seaside resort of Comillas, on the Cantabrian coast, I’ve thrown in my lot with my fellow pilgrims. I didn’t really mean it to happen, a week of isolation on the Camino del Ebro where I didn’t meet another pilgrim and then a gentle immersion into the more convivial ambience of the Camino del Norte. In Santander I came across my first pilgrims – I suppose I really should say fellow pilgrims – loitering outside the FEVE station, since then my integration back into the curious social oeuvre of the contemporary pilgrim has been gentle and pleasant.
A curious social oeuvre, a world of its own, a culture to itself. A culture that exists only in albergues – little towers of Babel – and the paths inbetween; not just multilingual by default but multilingual by desire. On the Camino del Norte there are far fewer pilgrims than on the Camino Francés so this multicultural, multilingual hubris is, paradoxically, at the same time more intense and relaxed.
Tuesday 24 JuneWhat do you know? Twenty kilometres along the coast, in the village of Serdio, to precise, and I’m shacked up in the municipal albergue ready for tomorrow’s foray along the Camino Liebana/Camino de Santo Toribo. Doesn’t take long for a dozen of the pilgrims I met yesterday to turn up. The beginnings of a Camino ‘family’ are already in place, maybe most of them’ll stick together till Santiago but that’s still 400km away. It’s at moments like these that I regret having only three weeks to walk, and at times I wish my itinerary wasn’t dictated by academic requirements. It’s at times like these that I just want to walk for the sake of walking, without having to analyse ever step I make and every footprint I leave behind.