Friday, 30 September 2016

Day 35 - Massive Procession of Pilgrims : Sarria to Portomarin

Given the racket outside last night, we were up and on our way by 4:30 am.  We half expected that by leaving this early we would be hiking alone in the dark, as we had done so many times before now.  However, we soon found ourselves in a mass of pilgrims, all leaving together.  I guess we left Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port at a similar hour so many days ago.

Other changes were immediately evident aside from the number of hikers leaving town.  As we walked we passed dozens of Hertz vans loaded with or preparing to load pilgrims and their luggage. We also began to encounter tour buses and taxis waiting at all the points where the path crossed roads to pick up tired hikers.  Perhaps most stunning were the sheer number of pilgrims travelling in groups and wearing matching Camino tour shirts, very large shells, and occasionally carrying gourds on their hiking sticks. The albergues, bars, and hotels we passed today also seemed to be much more mainstream and commercialized - many of them purporting to offer an "authentic Spanish experience" or "authentic Camino experience". As a result, for people who began walking in Saint Jean-Pied-de-Port, Paris, Berlin, Moscow or father afield, today represented a transformation of the Camino experience that felt a lot like going from a pilgrimage to a Niagara Falls tour group.

I do not intend to in any way judge or diminish the experiences of people who choose to begin their pilgrimage in Sarria.  I realize there are time, money, and physical constraints for many that do not allow them to spend five weeks on the trail.  I also understand that for some those five days stretch their personal comfort zones to the limits, and I realize choosing to begin in SJPP was in some ways equally random.  I applaud the efforts of anyone who sets out on their own quest.  However, our experience of the trail today was nothing like it has been. Pilgrims and their needs seemed to be at the centre of everything, leaving little room for anything else, and as we are mentally preparing to conclude our journey, it is hard to transition into this new way of being.  It is particularly difficult to watch some of the new pilgrims treat local Spanish people and other hikers with an air of superiority and arrogance, sometimes directly announcing that they deserve a certain level of respect and admiration because they are "real pilgrims."  What do they think the rest of the people hiking on the trail are?

As a result of this transformation in our experiences, a discussion soon arose about the nature of pilgrimage and about what it is to be a "real pilgrim".  Many of the people we have been walking with since SJPP were adamant that "real pilgrims" have to endure the physical challenges of the entire trail.  However, that line of discussion inevitably led to the question of what is the entire trail?   It made us wonder if we seemed equally naive at the beginning our journey to pilgrims who began in Germany, France, or beyond.  This debate went on and on in circles.   I think I am amazed at myself in the midst of these debates.  I had hoped that this pilgrimage had made me a better person, but today I realized how quick I still am to judge others in my head.  I still have a long way to go.  We all walk our own Camino, as do those fortunate enough to be able to join the way in Sarria. 

Amidst all this is the very depressing sense that we are nearly done.  To people just beginning, 100 km seems like a huge distance, but to those who have already crossed 600 or more kilometers, it means we only have about 4 days of walking together left.  As a result, we felt ourselves and our fellow hikers slow down today, taking far more breaks than usual, and spending way more time in each place than necessary, just to hang out with each other.  This too marked a stunning transformation in how many of us approached the pilgrimage.
As to the physical trail, today we hiked through the villages of Barbadelo, Morgade, Ferrerios, Momientos, and Villacha.  The town of Barbadelo was a collection of red albergues,  pilgrim gift shops, and a beautiful church, the Iglesia de Santiago.  

Along the way we also began to see more of the Spanish Horreo.  These are historical granaries that are built of stone with tile roofs, raised off the ground by pillars in order to stop rodents from eating the harvested crops stored inside.  

We enjoyed a break for cafe con leche and pie at a roadside bar with fellow pilgrims in Ferrerios, and took yet another break in Villacha to simply enjoy the moment.  By this point the number of items with shells on them had become a little daunting - garbage cans, toilet paper, Coke machines, sewer covers.... 

For most of the day, the path continued on past beautiful open pastures, and along stone walled lines of trees.  

At noon we met a man who has lived as a pilgrim and now wanders the Caminos of Europe with his donkey - a beautiful and humbling sight.  

Dauntingly the Camino markers now described the distance left to Santiago with a precision of three decimal places, and they occurred with depressing frequency.  When we passed the well photographed 100 km marker it was covered in graffiti and inscribed with the location.
As we neared our destination for the day, we came to a break in the trail which gave us the option of taking a short detour along a roadway or walking the well worn historical route.  Here we opted for the historical route which was purportedly an old Roman road, so worn in spots that you could see footprints worn into the rocks!  While this trail was a steep and uncertain route, it was nonetheless short and awe inspiring.

Soon afterwards we crossed a huge bridge over the Minho River, walked up a steep staircase, and passed through the pilgrim gate into the city of Portomarin.

Warm from our hike, which had taken us into the afternoon's rising temperatures, we checked into the first residence we came to on the main street, the Albergue Pasino a Pasino.  This residence features a large communal kitchen and eating area, comfortable hammocks in the backyard, and  relaxing small semi-private rooms with between 2 and 4 bunks.  We were give a room containing one bunk bed and one single bed.  As a result, we shared a room with an Australian lady who we had often seen and only briefly talked to over the past several weeks.  Once shown our room, we performed our usual routine of showering, doing our laundry, and heading out into town to explore.
We enjoyed a late lunch in a cafe located off the town's spacious and clean main square - the Pazo del Conde de la Maza, where the realities of a new batch of pilgrims set in.  While striving to order, Sean was roughly pushed and yelled at by an older gentleman telling him that "he was a pilgrim who had hiked over 20 kilometers today so he deserved to order his food first...".  Seemingly not understanding that almost everyone else at the bar and in town had hiked just as far or further today, this pilgrim loudly exclaimed to all who passed that he was "an authentic pilgrim who had completed a huge hike that day."  The truth is that I have no words to describe the situation, and soon discovered that many of our friends had had similar experiences in the past couple of days.  As the Brierley guide to the Camino extolled, regarding these new pilgrims:

"Note for 'seasoned' pilgrims: Beware of signs of irritation at the intrusion on 'my' camino - remember that many of the new arrivals may be nervous starting out and the last thing they need is aloofness built on a false sense of superiority.  A loving pilgrim welcomes all they meet along the path with an open mind and open heart without judgment."


After our break, and with this advice in mind, we enjoyed a couple of hours in the unique church at the centre of Portomarin. The Igrexa de San Juan de Portomarin is a large church fascinatingly shaped like a rectangular castle, set in the centre of the town plaza.    It has a cool interior, which brought welcome relief to wary hikers, as well as providing silence from the busier courtyard outside, which seems to double as the turnaround junction for pilgrimage tour bus companies.  Outside the church is a beautiful Celtic Cross, the or Cruceiro de San Nicolas, which is well worth the time to visit and admire.  
With little else to explore beyond the main town plaza in Portomarin, we spent much of our afternoon simply sitting and relaxing in the shade of the church. Here we met several now familiar Canadian and American pilgrims who advised that a bar on the edge of town had a wonderful vegetable plate, which we decided to try for our evening meal.  As a result, we went to the restaurant in the Hotel Ferramenteiro, where we enjoyed a dinner and wine on the balcony, along with a beautiful view of the region and a cool breeze washing over us.
Later we spent the rest of our evening sitting on the edge of town watching the sun set, enjoying the cool breeze which came down the waterway, and photographing the tranquil village at night.

As night settled on Portomarin we wandered back to albergue and were struck by the huge number of moving trucks and tour buses which now lined the main square , all unloading huge amounts of luggage and pilgrims.  We walked past this chaos and attended the pilgrim mass from 8-9, soon after which we were back in the albergue writing post cards, updating the blog, and preparing for our hike tomorrow to Palas de Rei.
There are only approximately 75 km left until our arrival in Santiago - a prospect which is both exciting and terrifying to both of us, as the trip has now passed so quickly, and neither of us is sure we have found what we were looking for. 
"Always pay attention.  you don't meet people by accident and stuff doesn't happen by coincidence.  Everything has a meaning if you take the time to see it."

Practical information:

Distance: 22.1 km
Max Temperature: 25°C
Accommodations: Albergue Pasino a Pasino (10 Euros / person)