Camino: Porto to Santiago, Uncategorized

Sometimes, the best moments on the Camino are not the views but the stories people tell

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This is Ponte Sampaio over the River Verdugo. This is yet another spot where Galacian fighters kicked the ass of Napoleon’s soldiers. This isn’t the first site we’ve encountered marked by the defeat of Napoleon’s army.

Redondela to Pontevedra (23 kilometers, felt just right)

Sometimes the best part of your day on the Camino isn’t the glorious autumn weather, or the cathedral-like walk through an ancient forest, or the breathtaking vistas that greet you at the crest of a difficult climb, or the journey back in time as you pass through a Medieval village along narrow cobblestone paths.

No, sometimes it is a simple story told by another pilgrim.

This happened on our walk between the mellifluously named cities of Redondela and Pontevedra.

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Camino people walk and share their stories, deepening their experience, embracing their compassion, and widening their community as they put miles behind them.

We were coming down off the first of two substantial hills when we caught up with a young German woman we’d met before. During our first encounter, she was sitting in the midst of cornfields and vineyards, on a low stone wall with her shoes off.

We smiled and Buen Camino-ed each other. Something made Rose stop, turn around, and walk back to the woman. Let’s call her Karina, as I never did catch her name.

Karina’s feet were blistered pretty badly.

Up and over Alto da Lomba, the first of two substantial hillclimbs toward Pontevedra:

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Rose, who knows a thing or two about administering to feet after a long career as a dancer, pulled out her emergency kit and helped patch her up as best she could.

So it was with some relief when we encountered her several days later. She was still walking — slowly, gingerly, a bit cautious, but there was stature and strength in her stride. She wasn’t hobbled in pain like she was the first day we met.

“I began this walk because I needed to test my faith,” said Karina. “I have been filled with doubts.”

Like all of us, Karina had been caught in the soul-deadening daylong rain between Tui and O Porrino, and the wet didn’t do her feet any favors.

“It has been very painful,” she acknowledged. “Then yesterday, everything went wrong. I could barely walk. The pain was just awful.”

The first hill climb descends into Arcade, beside the Ria de Vigo, and then down to Ponte Sampaio where Napolean’s army was defeated on the banks of the Rio Verdugo. On the opposite bank, the Camino curves upward through ancient neighborhoods, along narrow winding roads, barely more than pathways, until it disgorges hikers back into the countryside:

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Karina hobbled into Redondela pretty late in the day. She found the hostels and auberge’s booked up and was beginning to grow anxious, as walking from door to door and being told there was no room at the inn wasn’t the biblical experience she was hoping for. Especially with those feet.

But there are angels everywhere on the Camino and she found one at one booked-up hostel. The manager called around until he found her a bed and then he drove her to a small family-run hotel.

Once past Arcade, the second climb begins with little prelude. The colors of Autumn are more noticeable and the chill in the air keeps hikers bundled. A pop-up cafe with staff dressed in pilgrim costumes keeps them caffeinated:

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Karina said the family greeted her like a lost relative. The son carried her backpack in and the mother got her quickly settled into a room. While Karina revived her spirits with a warm shower, the mother washed and dried all her clothes.

Afterward, they tended to her blistered feet and even ran out to the pharmacy for supplies.

Karina shared dinner with the family in their own kitchen. More importantly, they shared the intimacy of laughter and stories. Karina said they sent her off this morning with a hearty breakfast and some snacks for the road.

This morning, her feet were tender, but they no longer hurt.

“You know, like I said, this journey has been about my faith,” said Karina. “Last night, I found my faith.”

There was not a more beautiful moment on the Camino that day.

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Past an industrial park with freight containers stacked like poker chips, past the Capela da Sta. Marta XVII, down to the main road into Pontevedra where the Camino offers a choice: A brisk walk into the city? Or a stroll along a verdant riverwalk. We took the river path:

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There are two ways to walk into Pontevedra, and one is a bit longer than the other.

When you are nearing the end of your walk, a matter of several kilometers looms large when you face the fork in the road. In this instance, the shortest way to Pontevedra was along a fairly busy road through an industrial area. The longer path was a meander through the woods, alongside several streams that seemed to converge and tie up into a knot.

As we stood there weighing the pros and cons, gauging the tenderness of our feet, and trying to divine just how divine this extended detour would be, a surprising number of hikers hoofed on by, aiming straight for the not-so-scenic industrial park.

Did they know something that we didn’t?

Apparently not. 

We headed towards the woods and encountered one of the most beautiful segments of the Camino yet. Granted, it had so many twists and turns that I was fairly sure that was me I saw walking in the opposite direction. 

The centuries of flowing water and the footsteps of thousands of pilgrims had carved out a woodland fantasy. You half-expect to see fairies dancing in an opening among the trees, or a tiny waterwheel beside the house of Mr. Mole.

Truly, this was the sort of space where an inspired writer comes to compose the next great set of fairy tales or “Winnie the Pooh” for a new generation.

When the brutal architecture of abandoned factories and churlish highways began to intrude on the periphery, a sense of sadness descended. We didn’t want this walk to end. Only when the colorful graffiti began to show up on flat surfaces did we know this bit was over.

The garden walk disgorged us rather abruptly into the urban fringe of Pontevedra. A not very pretty fringe at that. 

Glumly we walked past scruffy parking lots and between the train station and bus terminal. 

But there is a point where Pontevedra transforms.

Exploring Pontevedra:

Quite abruptly, you are no longer walking beside busy city streets but along wide, open pedestrian thoroughfares. The pedestrian roads criss-cross each other and merge and bend just like any other city street — only without cars.

We’ve been impressed with the ways cities and large towns distinguished themselves by the amount of real estate that was dedicated to pedestrian walkways, expansive plazas, and outdoor cafes and restaurants. 

These communities exist for their people, not for their automobiles.

Pontevedra seems to do it all better than most. Blocks and blocks and blocks of pedestrian-friendly boulevards — and not just in the well-preserved Medieval center.

Quite by chance yesterday, I pulled up a story on Pontevedra in David Byrne’s new good news-project Reasons to be Cheerful. It was headlined “Spain’s happy little carless city.” The city of 84,000 has eliminated 90 percent of vehicle traffic in its urban center.

“Pontevedra, once choked with cars, is a laboratory for how smaller cities can implement a few simple tricks to reduce driving dramatically,” the story said.

I can testify: It was an extraordinary pleasure to walk around Pontevedra. Both the historic center and the surrounding commercial districts were filled with tourists and city dwellers alike. There also seemed to be a significant amount of public are scattered along the pedestrian ways. You have time to appreciate that sort of thing when a taxi isn’t bearing down on you, horn blaring.

In Pontevedra, the brand new Nacama Hostel answered our prayers for the night:

But before we had time to appreciate all that, we had to find a place to stay.

I had a creased, frayed and sweat-soaked flyer for a place called Nacama Hostel, which someone had carelessly dropped along the trail. “This could be an omen,” I thought at the time.

Now I was thinking, this is just practical information.

Especially when we saw Nacama’s entrance on Rúa Lavandeiras, several blocks into the non-vehicle zone.

The hostel has been open all of two weeks and, yes, they had beds for us. We’d been having great luck finding newly or recently opened accommodations, not yet on the guidebook radar!

Nacama is owned by Francisco Vidal and his brother, both in their twenties, from Pontevedra. They are two of the nicest people you will meet along this stretch of the Camino.  The name is Galician for “in bed.”

Francisco designed Nacama from the ground up and they clearly did their research. 

Take, for example, the bunk beds in the dorm room. Each bed has privacy curtains, electric outlets, and an LED reading lamp. Between each set of bunk beds is a plywood privacy partition. It felt more like a plush berth on a train that has room for 42 people.

Most importantly, the beds are extremely comfortable and don’t have the “rubber condom” often found on municipal auberges. There is an emphasis on comfort and privacy within the open community setting.

The furniture in the lounge and the kitchen facilities all have an IKEA coolness. A large group of guests sat around the long kitchen table and talked animatedly until late in the evening. A very good sign of a well-designed hostel. The bathroom/showers make efficient use of limited space. There is even a full laundry room.

Every day, their dad drives to Redondela and stands beside the Camino handing out flyers, like the one I picked up off the ground. His contribution pays off. By late afternoon, Nacama had a full house.

Buen Camino!

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One thought on “Sometimes, the best moments on the Camino are not the views but the stories people tell

  1. Pingback: Sometimes, the best moments on the Camino are not the views but the stories people tell « Bound for Belize

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