At breakfast, I met Kirsten and Branu and we talked about how far we would walk that day. It appeared that most pilgrims were focused on getting to the top of the mountain to a village called O Cebreiro, thirty kilometres from Villafranca. To reach it, we had a choice of routes: the shorter road route with a steep climb at the end, or the longer mountain route with a steep climb at both ends. Those intent on making it to O Cebreiro in one day took the shorter road route to save their energy for the ascent at the end of the day. As my feet and I disliked road walking, we decided to take the longer mountain route and stay overnight in a small village part way up the second mountain.
Kirsten left the albergue with me. She seemed very nervous about making a mistake and sought confirmation from others as we were leaving town. For her, the events of the previous day must have still been vivid. At the place where we needed to decide whether to take the mountain or the road route, I felt very clear about which way I was going, despite the steep climb that was immediately evident. However, Kirsten was torn, probably because Branu wasn’t with us; she didn’t know which way he would go, or when and if they would be reunited. She seemed to feel swayed towards the road route, as all the pilgrims we met were going that way. I advised her to do whatever she wanted, since I would still take the mountain route whatever her decision. At the same time, there was a small voice inside my head wondering if it was really so wise to be going up a mountain on my own. After some hesitation Kirsten came with me, although I knew she still felt uncertain about her decision. A kilometre or so later, when we looked below us, we saw the pilgrim procession along the road in the distance and agreed that we had made the right decision.
Crossing the mountain we met only two people: one a local farmer and the other a fast-moving pilgrim. After ten kilometres we arrived in the town where the two routes converged. For me it couldn’t come soon enough. Tiredness had really hit me as I descended, and thoughts of a chocolate croissant with a café con leche kept me motivated for the last kilometre or two. Half an hour later we took off again along the road. By then it was midday and hot, and my feet were really objecting to the hard road surface. Although I slowed down, my Achilles tendon ached and I became more and more ill-tempered. If truth be told, I really wanted to walk alone, but I couldn’t see how I could get away. I knew Kirsten would follow no matter how far I went. She had to be with me and I resented her dependence on me. I didn’t want to make small talk or big talk; I didn’t want to talk at all. Just walking was as much as I could manage.
Although I didn’t have a clear plan as to where exactly I would stay, I hoped to make it to La Faba, a village five kilometres from O Cebreiro. Kirsten had heard about a ‘hippy albergue’ in La Faba and wanted to stay there; initially I agreed. However, when we arrived in the village, a man told me about an alternative hostel and advised that it was the best place he had stayed so far. An unsolicited albergue recommendation was very rare, so I knew it warranted an investigation. But Kirsten didn’t want to come with me, so we were at another point of conflict, just as we had been at the beginning of the day. While I was clear about where I was going, Kirsten was reluctant. As I walked away she stood undecided at the top of a little hill, although I guessed she would follow me in the end.
The albergue was well run by a couple of German women, and on arrival I felt really welcomed, not something I had experienced everywhere. Often, arriving at an albergue was a very impersonal, transactional experience. It was always so nice to be greeted warmly and to have a sense that the hospitalero had some insight into what it took to continue to walk each day. As the German hospitalero enquired about my day, my reply was overheard by a male pilgrim passing through the foyer. ‘I recognise that accent,’ he said. He had clearly arrived sometime before me, as he was already showered and changed. I hoped we’d meet again later – I recognised his accent too.
A few minutes into the check-in process, Kirsten walked through the door and I was happy to see her. Perhaps I was slow to admit that this was the part of the day when I needed her more. With the resentment and friction of the day forgotten, we agreed to go to the bar for a drink once the chores had been completed. While I waited for Kirsten in the dormitory, the man I had spoken to earlier came in and introduced himself. Richard lived in my home county of Wexford, so we had something in common from the off. He asked if he could join us for a drink and as we walked up the little hill to the village, I found myself clicking with him straight away. It was a friendship born in immediate playfulness. Truthfully, I felt excited in his company and I hadn’t felt excited for some time. We had dinner in the local bar, where we were joined later by Branu who had walked back from O Cebreiro, having failed to secure accommodation. During dinner it emerged that Richard worked as a doctor. I wasn’t surprised; he had an air of calm, and my sense was that he was used to being in charge. I could really imagine people feeling safe in his hands.
On the way back to the albergue, I walked ahead with Branu while we played with our shadows under the street light. However, we sobered up quickly when we realised the dorm was in complete darkness on our return. Switching on overhead lighting was not an option – a riot might have broken out. Finding what I needed, then getting onto the top bunk and into my sleeping bag without making too much noise or injuring myself was not easily achieved.
Although I didn’t admit it to Kirsten or Branu, I liked Richard. I had learned that he had a daughter, but he didn’t wear a wedding ring so his marital status wasn’t clear. But I liked him and I was hoping…….