We had agreed the night before that we would be ready at 8am to begin the day. I opened my door at 8-on-the-dot, ready to get started, and eventually left the albergue at 9am. We left the keys in the door as instructed and walked out the stately gates. Needing breakfast, we walked down the hill a slight way and found a little charming corner cafe with some men having coffee at the tables just outside the door. One man looked up at us as we entered and welcomed us in with a smile. He ushered us to a table and helped us decide on what we wanted for breakfast. He then offered us thick slices of a fruit jam that was not a jam but rather a gelatinous slice that was delicious and strange but went really well with the cheese and toasted bread.
Using google-translate we asked him if he could make us some sandwiches that we could stow away for later. We had read in our Wise Pilgrim guide that Castrelos Park was ahead of us and we would not have much opportunity to buy food while we walked through it. The man very kindly wrapped up some cheese and ham sandwiches for us and we stuffed these and a couple of cokes into our packs. I paid for the breakfast and lunch and was going back to my table when the man told me to wait and gave us coffees in take-away mugs for the road. He refused to take payment for them, emphatically shaking his head and smiling.
Hefting our pack back onto our backs, we wished him well, thanked him again and walked to the door. But as we opened it, it began to pour. The hill was soon gushing with water. We stood frozen, dismayed and unsure of what to do while our elevated mood poured down the hill with the deluge. Our clothes were dry and warm and we had hoped to keep them that way a while longer.
The man rushed to us and closed the door. Pushing us back to the table, he shook his head and told us to wait. So we sat a while longer and drank the coffees he had given us for the road. Finally, the rain stopped and we were able to set off, walking back up the hill and past the Albergue.
The way took us through some beautiful old villages and up some very steep hills. My legs trembled and I used my trekking pole to help drag me up the near vertical roads. Two Barcelonians passed us on one of the hills and we chatted for a while before they steamed off ahead. The park was lovely. Trees surrounded us and birds sang.
Walking through the woods, I was ahead of Kim, puffing up one of the many hills. I made it to the top and looked up. Right in front of me was a sign marking the last 100km to Santiago.
‘Kim!’ I called, frantic with excitement. ‘Look here!’ She puffed up to stand next to me and whooped before grabbing hold of me. We danced, bags bouncing and poles clicking. It wasn’t long before we were sitting on the stone that the sign was inserted into and laughed some more. We slugged down some water and felt very pleased with ourselves. Just then some men arrived in a vehicle, clearly there to do some work in the woods. Kim ran up to one of the men, waving her camera and signed for him to please take a photo of us standing by the sign. He grudgingly did so and handed the camera back, mumbling in Spanish. I tried to give him my phone to do the same, but he pretended to not understand and disappeared into the brush with the other man. Disappointed, I instead took photos of our trekking poles. They had, after all, helped us to get this far.
At the end of the park was a playground with benches. Here, we sat with our shoeless feet propped up on our bags and enjoyed our sandwiches and cokes. We enjoyed the sun and the silence and the fact that we had all day to arrive in Vigo. While we sat on those benches, the Belgiums overtook us. They nodded and greeted us as they trooped past.
We soon caught up with the Belguim on the outskirts of Vigo. Drinking coffee, we saw them exit a cafe opposite ours. As they left, the German trio entered the same cafe that they had just vacated. It is interesting how familiar you become with people without even knowing them while all walking the same road at different paces. We were all heading down the same road, but all doing it in our own way. However, we all had the same destination and this was the unifying factor that we could all relate and bond over. Only Harriet at this point had become part of our Camino family, but this would soon change. Our destined family was unknowingly still behind us. I think staying in hostels helped us to form lasting bonds. I love the sense of camaraderie in hostels and the openness generally found in places like these. I’ve backpacked around many places and must say that I do appreciate a hotel room when I have access to one. On the Camino, sometimes, the split cost of a hotel room was around the same as staying in a hostel. Regardless of how dilapidated the room, it was nice to have our own en suite. On the other hand, I also love the sense of ease and generosity one can find amongst like-minded travellers in more economical digs.
There is an old converted barn on the North Downs in the UK – along the Canterbury Pilgrimage route – called Tanners Hatch. I stayed a night there a few years prior to my Portuguese Camino. I had bought a bottle of wine in Dorking (the closest town) and carried it through the forest and rain to this tucked away gem in the middle of nowhere. I figured that I could enjoy it alone or share it when I had sussed out the place and occupants. On arriving, there was a lovely fire blazing and wet hiking boots drying on the edges of it. Everyone was sitting in the lounge area, stone walls and floor shimmering from the light of the fire. In this spirit of mutual adventure and camaraderie, we cracked open the wine and drank from mugs, all with ‘NHS’ printed on them. One of the visitors was an Australian who was walking the Canterbury Pilgrimage, a route I would do at a later date. I think listening to her was instrumental in beginning my personal journey towards long distance walking and the Portuguese Camino.
Kim and I passed the Belgiums in a wide field. We greeted each other again with a smile, a laugh and a wave and walked briskly on, our paces quickly outdistancing them. We were bored of walking and the town was not as interesting as the forest. I began to sing a round that I had taught my young choir at school. Kim quickly picked it up and soon joined in. We sang with gusto and joy. With a laugh, we stopped and could hear one of the Belgiums singing ‘Nessen dorma’ behind us. His fine tenor voice amplified under the bridge that we had already passed under.
‘Teach me another.’ Kim demanded.
I happily complied and taught her some more. Singing is a common theme in Camino books. You’ll see many of the writers mention singing or someone singing. As a singer and singing teacher, I guess my automatic response when bored is to sing. I work with songs and singers on a daily basis. Kim and I worked through our entire Rodgers and Hammerstein repertoire numerous times before making it to Santiago. Singing is known to heighten ones serotonin levels (the chocolate hormone) and aid in pain relief. It is used in hospitals and is even prescribed by doctors. Community choirs are known for elevating up ones self-esteem and level of happiness. Singing generally makes a person happy and relieves pain to a degree. So, we sang as many people have done for centuries along the many Camino routes and we laughed and smiled, eating up the miles on the outskirts of urban Vigo.
Vigo may have derived its name from the Latin word for small village, but it it now huge. We walked for ages through its suburbs. It is, in fact, the largest town in Galicia, has double the population of Santiago and isn’t known for its organised urban planning. According to the Wise Pilgrim guide, it developed rather briskly and haphazardly in the 19th-century.
The sun shone hot upon us and we had to stop at a bench to take off a layer. We drank some water and were in no particular hurry to continue. While taking out time, the Belgiums passed us again, ‘Nice singing.’ One said as he went passed.
‘The same to the fine voice in your group.’
‘Thank you.’ He said with a grin. It was the man who had sat next to us at the cafe in Oia.
Continuing, we once again met the Belgiums. But this time they were arguing in smaller groups just under a bridge. The tenor was looking at a map on his phone and comparing it to one on the wall of the bridge. We stopped and asked if there was a problem.
‘Some of the people want to head straight to the hotel. But we’re miles from it. I’m trying to tell them that we still have to walk further before we can being making our way to it.’
He looked so annoyed and everyone looked unhappy. There was nothing we could do to help them and Kim and I left them there arguing. We sadly never saw them again. We did wonder if they ever finished their walk to Santiago. They may have just called a taxi and called it quits. Maybe they did finish, but we just never saw them again. We would never know.
As we walked further into Vigo, a lot of people began to join us, all walking in the same direction. People converged and moved forward, growing in much larger numbers and heading towards the same destination. These crowds joined other crowds and sang chants and waved flags. There was something happening and we suspected it was a football match.
We came to a courtyard and sat drinking beers and ate pinchos. Our shoes lay discarded and our feet were propped up on metal chairs. We lazily sat, enjoying the fine sun and elevated mood of the celebrating city. We didn’t know it at the time, but Vigo was also celebrating La Reconquista. This dates from 1809 when Vigo rose up and expelled Napoleon’s occupying army on the 28th of March. Fernando VII granted the town the title of ‘most faithful, loyal and courageous’. Every year, the old town becomes a big market and people dress up as soldiers, farmers and other 19th-century historical figures.
We may not have known any of this at the time, but what we did know was that we needed to find somewhere to stay for the night. We continued to walk. We lost the arrows for a little while and a woman pointed us in the right direction. We then began to look on my phone for somewhere to stay, but a man stopped us and pointed us along the Camino. He was so animated and excited to help us, flapping his hands and smiling, that we abandoned the apartment located on google-maps and continued walking along a river. Finally, we came out of a park and saw a woman with a small boy on a tricycle and a little dog that frisked in all haphazard directions. We asked her for some help but she just looked helplessly at us. I was feeling very uncomfortably in need of a loo and we were tired, footsore and unsure of where the hotels and hostels were. There did not seem to be any on the Camino itself. Maybe there are, but we were beginning to panic and had reached our exhaustion peak for the day. The woman said in broken English that her brother lived close by and understood English better than she did. She phoned him, speaking rapid Spanish before walking with us to his apartment. The boy paddled his tricycle, unfazed by the bizarre and sweaty English women standing with gross and oversized packs on their backs. Their dog frisked about the road, making cars stop and hoot until he was tied to a lead and brought under control.
Her brother, Miro, greeted us at the door and, with a wave, his sister was gone. He greeted us warmly and told us to come sit in his kitchen where he gave us cold water. We offered to take off our shoes, but he told us not to worry about them. I was able to use the ablutions and sit at his kitchen table while I worked out where the closest cheap hotel lay in relation to Miro’s apartment. After locating one, Miro directed us to the main street. We needed to weave our way through the haphazard streets to a central junction with an amazing statue of horses rearing. Then we would walk down one of the main roads to the hotel. We sat at Miro’s kitchen table and drank the cold water, condensation wetting our hands while Miro chatted to us and told us of his time working as a barman in Switzerland where he had learnt to speak English.
Deeply grateful and humming with the goodness of people, we left his apartment more fortified and ready for the last few miles of our day. His sister was still close by and walked with us through the twisting roads until she pointed out the street we needed to walk down to get the junction. Kim and I were exhausted from the day. It was only meant to be 22.4 km of walking, but we were sure that it had been much more than that. My feet felt like two stumps of pain. I shuffled one step forward at a time. Miro and his sister had taken in two sweaty pilgrims and given us the fortification we needed to continue. I had just been about ready to find a taxi. I’m not sure I would have. We would probably have continued and eventually found a hotel, but Kim and I felt much more optimistic after our encounter with the wonderful and generous siblings.
There are such wonderful and good people in this world. The Camino showed us more good than bad. Sometimes it is hard to believe in the goodness of mankind when one sees and experiences so much selfishness and when one feels that they are too selfish in themselves. Examples of goodness are restorative. They resonate and resound, enabling replication and a return to a better faith in oneself and towards humanity at large. How could one not know how to be generous and good after seeing and experiencing amazing examples of what is generous and good? We may have only spent an hour in the company of Miro and his sister, but they will forever be a part of me, imprinted on my Camino journey and affect how I experience the world and enact upon it.
Kim and I finally found our way to the rearing horses and had no idea of where the Camino lay in relation to that point. That was a worry for the next day. Instead, we were heading into the town centre to find somewhere to sleep. While waiting at a red light, I heard Kim call me. I turned and seeing nothing but Kim’s startled face. Looking down, I then saw a tiny nun holding Kim’s arm tightly and smiling. She introduced herself as Sister Maria De Le Cruz. She only knew a little English but said what she could with shining eyes and hand gestures demonstrating her joy and meaning. She wished us a good journey to Santiago and told us to walk with ‘Feliz’. It was close enough to the Italian ‘felice’ for me to understand. I cannot speak Italian, but I have sung the word enough times to not need a dictionary. It also has a lovely ring to it. ‘Feliz-felice’. It’s like a song or chant in itself. She told us to walk with joy and happiness. To, in fact, do everything in life with ‘feliz’. Then, with a smile, she was gone and we began to cry. There was something deeply moving about her and her words. We had experienced two extremely difficult days on the road. We were exhausted and unsure of where we were and where we needed to be. But this little woman with a radiant smile and a deep goodness in her eyes had spoken simple words of love and joy and goodness. I can still see her little crinkled face framed by her wimple and veil, smiling at us with honest joy. My heart felt ready to burst. She would never know how much she affected us then and for the rest of our lives. We still mention her, recalling the feelings she evoked on our journey to Santiago. It was another example presented to us by the Camino of how our words and actions resound within others and I hoped that my resonances were positive and less selfish than I suspected they were.
We practically ran to our hotel, so excited were we, hearts pounding with the amazement of the day. We checked in, showered and dressed in our room before heading out. Elena at the front desk told us of a street party in the old town and we were tempted, but were also very tired. We found a restaurant and misunderstood the menu, ordering fried crumbed beef instead of fish. It was rather unpalatable, but the wine and desert was wonderful. We discussed going to the street party and decided against it – something I quite regret now. But the day had been long and emotional. We were spent. We returned to our room and slept for ten hours.