Chapter 14 – Herbon (20 km)

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What a difference a good nights sleep makes. I no longer felt nauseous and bleary. We had burnt toast, orange juice and coffee and set off towards Padron but we had decided to go a bit further to a monastery in Herbon. We had read about it in the guidebooks and it sounded very appealing.

We struggled to find the Camino and had to ask the locals for help. But we eventually found it and began to walk through the outskirts of the town. The two English girls caught up with us. They had joined up with a third girl and continued to quickly walk ahead of us. They were unburdened, having sent their bags ahead of them with a company recommended by the Muswell Hill family.

We sloshed through rivers that had once been paths. It was so quiet and Kim and I walked a few paces from each other, tired and temporarily all talked-out. It was really nice to finally come across a cafe that served a pilgrim meal. Other pilgrims walked in and the cafe became quite crowded. The Muswell Hill family entered and took a table to the side of us. There was a large table of people at the back in an alcove and they clearly all knew each other from walking the interior route. We felt very excluded and their conversation was dominated by a very loud North American man who held court, dictating topics and which individuals were included in the clique. The Muswell mother, known to the crowd, had been picking mint and fennel along the way and very sweetly offered them to me. But I, feeling a bit awkward, politely declined, not wanting to carry them around for miles. They grew everywhere and I could always harvest them for myself if I felt so inclined.

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The exclusive crowd left and I went into the alcove to look at the walls and ceiling which were covered in names and messages. I took one of the provided pens and wrote my name: ‘J9’.

The meal was wonderful. When we sat back, replete, the waiter came over with a bottle of grappa (orujo – I think) and two shot glasses. He proudly poured the grappa into the glasses and, with a smile and a nod in the direction of the glasses on the table said, ‘My father’ and walked back to the other side of the bar counter. We looked at him in astonishment and he mimed drinking it in one shot and gave us a thumbs up. So we tipped our heads back and, with a giggle, threw the burning liquor down our throats. It immediately stole our breath. We choked on its potency and, gasping, thanked the man who gave us another thumbs up, smiling in satisfaction.

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We were two of the last to leave. There was still a couple of Lithuanian women at the table next to us and a solo man at the far table. We left smiling, buzzed from the grappa and exited the cafe only to find that it had begun to pour with rain. Kim and I looked at each other and, in silent accord, went back into the cafe and put on our rain gear and pack covers. Once again we left, this time with a grimace, and continued into a forest, the rain falling incrementally harder and faster and the sky rumbling at intervals.

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We came to the outskirts of a town where we found a sign indicating an alternative route that would take us down the town’s main street. The Camino continues parallel to this alternative and sits higher above the town and passes through more suburban-type streets. The alternative indicated that we could dip down into the town, walk along its main street and then head back onto the Camino. We were wet, cold and tired by this point and decided to go into the town where we entered the first bar we came to and sat stretched out on the long benches, clothes draped and dripping. The English girls were already there and some German pilgrims soon walked in and took the booth behind us. We all ended up laughing and recounting our journeys and individual adventures. We were so close to Santiago and most of us would be making our way to the Cathedral the next day. It was definitely a cause for common ground and stirred up a delicious excitement of expectation in all of us. The abstract was about to merge with the concrete and I wasn’t sure how I felt about the culmination of a dream.

Kim and I, more rested and our clothes marginally drier, set forth again, leaving the English girls talking with the Germans. We hooked back onto the Camino and found the red arrows pointing towards the monastery. It was getting late and I had read that mass was at 8pm. I wasn’t sure at what time dinner would be served and I wanted to get us there as soon as possible.

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I chivied us along and we tried to ignore our deep tiredness and pain. We were completely alone and the streets were deserted. Stray cats darted about and a skinny dog ran off into the bushes. I wondered where all the people were. Domestic dogs continued to bark at us and our journey had been accompanied by a constant chorus of barking canines. There had also been no shortage of cats scampering every which way. Usually they ran off but one heavily pregnant dame came up to us at a fountain and purred, blinking her eyes slowly at us and urged us to stroke her heavy flanks. Another time, a tiny black kitten attached itself to me and began mewing at my feet. It wouldn’t leave and I wanted to cry leaving it behind. Walking away, I tried desperately to imagine some way that would allow me to keep it but I knew that I would cause it more harm by taking it. I’m a bleeding heart when it comes to children and animals. I have two cats of my own and dream of having a dog. Growing up, pets were and are an integral part of my life. My little dependants. They make my house a home. So I wiped my eyes while I walked away from the pitiful cries of that little black kitten, knowing there was nothing I could do. I didn’t have food for it and there was plenty of water available. It was one of the most difficult things that I had to confront on the Camino.

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Finally, we found the monastery and walked along the outside of its wall until we found the gates and walked through. We entered the office and I was sat down at a table and quickly registered by Magdalene before being ushered by Miro through to another building while Kim sat in the chair that I had just vacated. Miro swung a door open and let me into a large kitchen in which sat long trestle tables and benches that were all occupied by other pilgrims. They smiled and ‘ola’ed me as I was rushed through. I only had time to return a quick ‘ola’ before I was launched through another door and into a long corridor of sleeping coves. Each cove had a curtain, a light, a bunk bed and two chairs. I was given fresh linen and instructed to smell it to show that I was happy that they were clean and free of bed bugs. I only had time to change my shoes before I was told to join the other pilgrims who were on their way to mass. I passed Kim who was settling into the cove next to me, ‘What,’ she muttered, ‘Don’t I even get the time to have a smoke?’ Apparently not. Because she soon joined me in the chapel where we gratefully sat and enjoyed the quiet charm of the spacious interior and multitude of gilded-statues.

A robed man stood in front of us, bearded and solemn. I was still in bewildered shock having so suddenly transitioned from walking streets to now being seated in this amazing setting, surrounded by a whole group of unknown pilgrims all murmuring in different languages. The minister explained the history of the church and monastery, speaking French to a Frenchman and his teenager daughter who then translated it into English as all but an Italian couple understood. The Italian wife then simultaneously translated it into Italian for her husband. After telling us about the chapel, we were shown the vestry which is remarkable for the fact that it has a straight roof. It used to have beams, but the Napoleonic soldiers took them. We then followed the man through to the original eating hall. It was tiny and would have hosted around 200 people (50 monks and 150 apostates). Now it smelled of mould and damp. We were shown a courtyard which had a representation of the original stone pilgrim cross (the original was lost) and then directed to visit the fountain which is beautifully picturesque. There were sheep scrambling up broken walls and served to keep the grass short.

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At 8pm, we were called to mass where a priest lead us in service and prayer. We concluded the service standing in a line in front of him while he moved along the line and blessed us and our final few miles towards the Santiago. As he finished, he gave us certificates on which was a prayer and a blank space to insert our names. I was greatly moved by the service and blessing but left a little empty by this piece of impersonal cardboard which seemed more for the edification of our expectations.

The rest of the evening stands out most especially for me and is a highlight of my journey. We returned to the kitchen and sat at the long tables on benches. Miro and Magdalena were volunteers who looked after the pilgrims and had prepared a meal of bread, salad and lentil stew for all of us. There were jugs of wine and we all sat, laughing together and shared our stories and excitement for the next day’s destination. We began the night as strangers and ended up as friends. Two in particular, Marie and Sebastian from Germany, became part of Kim and my Camino family and we have continued to stay in contact with each other since that night.

At the table sat Marie and Sebastian, a French father and his daughter, an Italian couple, a German, a Swede, Kim and me. The French father had hurt his leg and had decided to complete the Camino by bicycle and his daughter had joined him when she had finished school for the term.

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After the meal, our hosts opened the freezer and took out a container of iced shot glasses. Miro then placed liqueurs and home made orujo on the table and we all whooped in pleasure. Poor Sebastian tried to go to bed early, but we were making far too much noise and he soon rejoined us.

Our hosts were amazing. They had been married for forty years and were still so playful with each other. They cuddled up together on the bench and quipped at each other with a gentle chuckle. Miro told us how he has seen Magdalene one day when he was a very young man and had felt immediately drawn to her.

Eventually, at 11pm, it was time to go to bed. We were all starting early the next day. I curled up in my sleeping bag, grateful for its warmth in my cold and private cubicle.

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