And so with our best feet forward (and our best socks), we begin our journey from Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo.
Each of us with a scallop shell, an ancient Christian symbol, dangling from our rucksacks – a symbol of pilgrimage to symbolise our journey towards Heaven.
We all have one thing in common – we are going to finish this journey even if it kills us – little did we know!
Each of us have a Pilgrim’s passport which has to be stamped in every town we pass through as proof of our journey. This is an excellent idea for both pilgrim and café owner, as it encourages you to stop and experience some of the culture and the sincere friendliness of the locals. Pilgrims are treated with respect and we are soon introduced to the age-old phrase “buen camino!” which amazingly, the locals never tire of repeating to every pilgrim they pass.
The small chapels we pass along the way are also offering passport stamps and each one is lovingly cared for and open for prayer. This one in particular proved to be a beautiful place of refuge and meditation.
Walking almost non-stop is becoming more and more arduous and this is only the first day! And as the sun grows stronger and stronger, I am beginning to wonder when on earth we will reach our albergue to rest for the night.
After 30km and a rather long detour around the outskirts of the town, I begin to get decidedly ratty. “I am not going another step further until I know we are going in the right direction!” I say as I still continue to put one foot in front of the other, unable to stop the momentum of my poor aching legs.
Knowing how difficult it is for most men to ask for directions and insisting on following a map in a questionable guide book, I decide to take the matter into my own hands (the only appendages that don’t ache) and ask a group of men who look like locals. “Do you know where auberge Venecia is?” I say in my best Italian, (I don’t know any Spanish) One of them detects my sheer desperation and after a short period of mental translation kindly sends us in the opposite direction! At which point I am ready to break down and weep, but he suddenly changes his mind and directs us to a place which is just up the road and around the corner. Oh, this is music to my ears.
The albergue could have been a hay barn for all I cared, just as long as I could rest. I think I know now how Mary and Joseph felt when a barn was all they were offered and they jumped at the chance! Well this place doesn’t exactly have ‘curb appeal’ either.
We ring on the bell and are greeted by a short, stout Spanish lady who half-smiles at us. She’d probably been wondering where we’d got to and if we were ever going to turn up.
Thankfully, she is extremely hostel-proud and the place looks like it’s been scrubbed from top to bottom with a small tooth brush. Now this really is my kind of Heaven (given the circumstances).
The last thing I need is a lesson on how the coffee machine works, which our landlady insists upon before retiring to her own home. So I leave that to Caroline while I throw myself onto the bed like a Lemming jumping off the edge of a cliff. I immediately wish I hadn’t. It was like I had landed at the bottom of the cliff, but had actually survived the fall. It was soooo hard! At this point I feel like a disappointed Goldilocks who has no other beds to try. This is it, so put up or shut up! But where is the pillow? I ask myself. Oh dear, there is no ‘pillow’. It is simply a long, firm padded sausage that runs from one side of the bed to the other. Also devoid of any comfort. Completely exhausted, I lie down and immediately drop off to sleep.
“Come on, Liz!” Robin shouts, to raise me from my comatose slumber. “We are walking into town to find somewhere to eat.” Oh no, I think, I can’t possibly walk anywhere now. I then notice a lack of feeling at the side of my head where my ear normally is. It’s been paralysed by the sausage!
We walk into town and find a restaurant where the locals go. But then there aren’t any tourists round here anyway! It is a typical Spanish menu – Squid, Octopus, burgers and no veg!
We feel a lot better and walk back to the albergue.
Now it’s time to assess the damage I have inflicted on myself. Ouch! Now I know why I was hobbling. My blister I had gained in a training walk to Rye has grown, but worse than that, I have a red rash around my calves and ankles. My spirit plummets, as this is something I was dreading. It has happened a few times before after a hard day’s walking in the heat, but it always went away in time. But now it could only get worse with another ten days of walking ahead.
I spend the night unable to sleep on the hard as iron mattress and ear paralysing sausage, wondering what this condition is and how I can help my predicament.