Days 20, 21 & 22: The Final Days of the Norte

La Isla > Sebrayo > Gijón > Lugo/Sarria
September 26 – 28, 2017

As we set out the next morning a little later than intended the concierge teased us that everyone else was gone already. But waiting for the sun meant that bright colors were popping all around us and we could feel the presence of Fall beginning to set in. Spain felt slightly warmer than temperate, however, so the dew filled mornings still felt like a perfect cool beginning to the day. Yellow lemons contrasted nicely with round orange pumpkins piled high amidst the pale straw bales.

Goodbye La Isla, you were magical…
And the sun rises over the colorful houses of the pueblo.
The orange pop of Autumn.
And the yellow of drying corn.

Despite all my ailments, I felt good. So I wasn’t even mad when the road led us astray not once but twice. The first time we were lured away by an old church perched on the edge of a farm. After winding around it I could hear the faint cry of kittens as several of the tiniest little heads popped out from amongst the hay. My cat whispering continues. But as we looked up the barrel of a giant hill we realized that this churchfarm was not on the itinerary and we had the backtrack.

The second time was more mysterious and I’m really not sure where the path was supposed to be but some other girls had taken this same wrong turn that landed us on a major road. That road also lead into the same town we were headed through so when a lady passing my exasperatedly told us it was easier to follow it then head back to the trail we reluctantly took her advice and were rewarded with a giant dinosaur statue, though we wouldn’t have another chance to look for tracks on the coast.

Church in Prescia where we made our luncheon.

It was a lovely and fairly mellow day but long as we only had one more day to get to Gijón. We were aiming for La Parra but by a late afternoon lunch stop in Prescia another 12km felt excessively far to go for the rest of the day. There was a very nice looking little albergue right there and the hospitalera was nice enough to let us use her bathroom, but we felt like we should at least go a little farther. But as we sat in the courtyard of the little church we got nervous as we saw several hikers and cyclists careen by. The only stop before Villaviciosa was a single albergue in a town that wasn’t even a town, called Sebrayo. It was also the ending of one of the suggested stages and the only municipal for miles, cheap at 4€, so we worried there would be a mad dash there, even if it didn’t have drinking water or wifi. As we approached we played leapfrog with a woman, eventually landing behind her, and I worried my desire to take a single picture of a cute looking pond might have cost us our accommodation.

This pond was pretty but was it worth risking a bed for?

We needn’t have worried. Although the dark haired woman ahead of us, whom we would come to learn was called Diane and was from Quebec, was probably only the third one there in a space of 14 beds. And it was somewhat annoying that there was no wifi but the hospitalera had a large book collection and I set about reading a Harry Potter book. It was a bit beyond my Spanish comprehension level but since I’ve read them all twice before I could follow fairly easily.

And though there wasn’t drinking water on site the hospitalera lead us to a fountain near her home that was safe for consumption. There were no supermarkets or restaurants either, but there was a grocery van that stopped by twice a day where we were able to buy a delicious sausage and cheese dinner. The driver/salesman spoke no English and a man in front of us was struggling to communicate what he wanted. Vanessa and stood behind patiently while Diane sidled up beside us, clearly getting annoyed. “Just ask her,” she gestured not towards me but to Vanessa, “she speaks Spanish.” Indeed, though I am objectively much more proficient Vanessa did have a knack for communication that even I did not. Her expressiveness, hand gestures and general amiability sometimes meant she even clarified for me. Diane had had trouble checking in earlier and Vanessa had helped her which partially explained her outburst, even if it rubbed me a bit the wrong way.

The mobile grocer.

Language barrier or no, the Québécois woman’s earlier exchange with the hospitalera had been trying for us all. She clearly wanted things to be true that were not and no amount of complaining would make internet appear and at 4€ there really wasn’t any discount to be had. Nor would any hostel appear any closer than 6km, a distance Diane clearly did not want to walk that day. When she then shoved her way ahead of us to buy wine after unsuccessfully trying to get someone to go in on a 2€ bottle with her, our patience ran thin. She became the object of our ire for the next couple days but also provided a bit of comic relief and a nice way to commune with our hospitalera.

She had been tending the land and running this municipal albergue for the last 20 years and had a wall full of postcards and praise from former pilgrims. We enjoyed her sense of humor which came through clearly even without understanding every word. So when the French-Canadian started throwing a fit because she perceived the toilet paper in the women’s restroom to be running to low the hospitalera calmed her and told her it would be ok to take some from the men’s room (each room was a single shower and toilet so having them gendered wasn’t even relevant really) as there were only 2 men staying there at the time. Once Diane walked away she joked with us and showed us her secret stash of extra rolls.

Our hospitalera as a younger woman wearing albarcas. They look similar to Dutch wooden shoes and I thought they were at first but they are actually worn by farmers and ranchers in Asturias and Cantabria in northern Spain although for the similar purpose of trudging through the muck and, unlike Dutch shoes, even have a bit of a rise in them in order to aid in that.

A group of young German girls on break from school showed up and one had a flag banner garland that looked quite familiar. “It’s my 20th birthday,” she said, “and this nice woman on the trail gave it to me in celebration, saying that it had been hers just a couple days before.” We smiled and laughed happy to be reminded of Willemijn even if we didn’t get to see her. But the young woman said she and Evelien were well and behind us in La Isla where we had been the day before.

We got to see Wilemijn one last time through her birthday garland.

I was exhausted and my many wounds were paining me, especially a new blister that had formed on the top of my toe when I had treated it poorly by just trying to slap a Compeed that wasn’t quite big enough on top. It only made it worse. So as I hobbled around Vanessa offered to do a bit of our laundry and I was so grateful. In keeping with the rustic nature of this whole place she did it by hand with a washboard in the back of the building and then we finished our dinner and beat a hasty retreat to bed where we were able to cuddle in the weird adjoining bunk beds. I actually slept better than I had in much fancier establishments.

The next morning we get off in good time and the path is lined with huge bushes filled with giant spiderwebs. The morning dew spreads beads of water all through them in the most beautiful way but their size and abundance is still a bit intimidating so I skip through the long narrow row as quickly as possible.

These were difficult to photograph (even though they completely surrounded us and were usually quite large and sturdy) so this was the best we could do.
Luckily we had another early morning backpacker to accompany us on our harrowing spider journey.

It’s late morning by the time we get to Villaviciosa, a town of fairly significant size in these parts. We find a cafe with a nice terrace and have a ridiculously huge breakfast with eggs, bacon and a croissant. We were supposed to have gotten a few kilometers past this town the day before and even then our hike into Gijón would have been long. We didn’t really want to take another bus at this point but we had gotten used to swallowing our pride and we didn’t really have a lot of options. But, tired of churches as we were, there was supposed to be a particularly old one with unusual round architecture just a couple more miles up the road, the San Juan de Amandi, so we decided we would hike there and then back into town to catch a bus the rest of the way.

Villaviciosa is very serious about their cider and the apples that go into it as evidenced by this statue that filled an entire corner of the park.

The path ambled through a pleasant little park and stream, some teenagers playing hookey, until we found the little church. It was all closed up but as well walked around it another couple appeared and then an older woman came by to let us both in. She was the caretaker and very sweet. She spoke almost no English but when she found out we were from the US all she wanted to talk about was Trump and how the hell he came to be. I thought we did a pretty good job of emphatically explaining that we were as confounded and appalled as she (and really everyone else we had met in Europe) was at the situation but she continued to chatter on about how terrible he was and how much more she liked Obama. When Vanessa used the Google translate on her phone to help her say “I miss Obama” I, thankfully, realized that it had mistranslated the verb “to miss” with the one for “to forget” and I tried to assure the woman, who was starting to get worried about us, that we loved Obama and were on her side. As much as we had tried to get away from American politics on this trip it was one of the things the world couldn’t stop talking about. As she eyed us skeptically as we left I couldn’t really blame her.

Even though we claimed to be done with churches we went out of our way for this one, I think, because it was so old. Roman remnants held such wonder along the Camino.

It’s always a little strange walking backwards on the Camino and we passed Andy gleefully telling us we were going the wrong way on the way back. We joked around with him a bit but I didn’t really care to tell him our whole story. I am a little disappointed I didn’t cross the street when we encountered Nadine a few more blocks down however. She shouted across to us and we said Andy would tell her where we were going but I knew this would be goodbye as we were unlikely to run into them in Gijón and from there we would head back to the French route. Sadly, we never did exchange any information and we never did see them again.

We did see our Québécois friend at the bus station. This was a long hard stretch without any real places to stay so it wasn’t that unusual for folks to take a bus and some others in our albergue had indicated they would, but we thought that our field trip would have meant that everyone would be gone by now. Luckily we stayed out of each other’s way and it was a short and uneventful bus ride.

From what I had read about Gijón I thought it was a mid sized town with plenty of tourists visiting its multiple beaches. But when we arrived it was bigger than I anticipated (this had become a theme) and not as pretty. By now we really were spoiled by all the incredible towns we had seen thus far and I guess when you compare most cities to a place with San Sebastian they’ll fall short. There was some cool feminist graffiti but as we walked past the first beach on the way to our pensión on the west side of town I was decidedly unimpressed. But the lady running the hotel was hilarious and friendly and pointed us in the direction of a beach closer to their property and more popular with locals in contrast to the tourist beach we passed along the way. But when we got there I was equally unimpressed. The landscape was dominated by a huge port labeled the “motorway of the sea” and seagulls swarmed the stiff sandy beach littered with seaweed and human detritus. We layed in the sun for awhile and I even took off my top to try to get a little color on my pale chest but the water was shallow and the silty, rocky bottom uncomfortable on the wounds of my feet. We only waded in about thigh high before scurrying back out and I was anxious to leave. My little transportation geek heart still wishes that instead we had gone to the railway museum we passed earlier in the day instead.

“Enough already!” Activist graffiti in Gijón.
Put a muzzle on the patriarchy…

But our host had given us some better information about a local watering hole called El Trebol right around the corner. There we enjoyed more delicious high cider pours in addition to some local delicacies. Cachopo is kind of like the Asturian turducken, with sides of veal covered in ham, then cheese, then breaded and fried. It is intensely rich and we struggled to finish even our shared plate.

Well before dawn we had to walk all the way back through town to catch a bus that would take us to Lugo before switching to another into Sarria and back onto the Camino Frances. At the station we met a cute little trio of 2 older men and a younger woman. I couldn’t tell at all how they were related or how they met but they were very nice and we had an enjoyable time talking about our varied Camino experiences. They had biked much of it and as a cyclist I enjoyed hearing those stories.

The views from the bus were incredible but try as I might I failed to catch them in any way that showed reverence. But here is a picture of us going beneath one of these highways in the sky earlier in the day just to give you an idea of how high above it all we were.

As the sun slowly rose and we could more clearly see the sea unfold down below as we traversed Spain’s somewhat terrifying freeways built high above the ground or the water reaching up, out, through the mountaintops I thought about how much I would miss the coastal route. We rode staring at the ocean all the way to Ribadeo before turning left and following an equally beautiful river. Despite its hardships I would potentially do the Norte again, even if I have little desire to complete the whole of the crowded Frances. Weeks later as I write this, it’s reinforced by articles such as this typical “What not to miss…” one which I catalog here mostly for my own future reference. And even though if I ever do go back I will probably be more prepared with a book or other research I wish I had also known earlier about the Gronze website, which really provides most of the information you’d need. It’s in Spanish but the information is easy to follow.

We pulled into Lugo still enveloped in the morning light. An historic city along the Camino Primitivo route we spent approached the towering Roman walls of with reverence and spent the the middle of the day exploring pools and mosaics buried discreetly under glass in the sidewalk that had been preserved for thousands of years.

As we boarded the bus bound for Sarria much more frenzied and crowded than the much longer morning bus I was excited to get to know the new green province of Galicia but very sad to leave a very distinct and favorite section of the trip.

The Catholic church reflects off the glass covering the ancient Roman pool in Lugo. Metaphoric?

1 thought on “Days 20, 21 & 22: The Final Days of the Norte

  1. Hi Alley, I’m trying to get in touch about the possibility of reprinting your piece ‘The Odd Girls’ Journey Out of the Shadows’ in a forthcoming anthology. I sent a message to you via academia.edu, but am not sure it got through. Please email me for more details.

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