We’ve just come back from a lovely wedding in Swansea. Good weather, great people, and lots of love.
This time last year we had quite a different adventure.
In 2017, we both walked el Camino de Santiago. Recognising the importance of a solo journey, we took different routes at the same time. I walked el Norte from Gijon, and Nik did the Primitivo, which starts in Oviedo. After two weeks we collided in Arzúa, and walked the final leg together.
Soulful solo journeys behind us, in 2018 we felt ready to make another pilgrimage, but this time together, setting off from our own house.
There’s an ancient route that connects with the main camino from León, heading north through the high mountains to find Oviedo, called el camino de San Salvador.
The usual camino destination is eventually Santiago de Compostela, the great cathedral. Or Finisterre, the end of the world, as it was known for its unlimited coastline.
As we’d already been to Santiago (and were a little underwhelmed), we decided a great journey would be to walk to León, taking the San Salvador route the opposite way.
We’d never been to León, and heard great things, especially keen to see Matavenero, the oldest ecocommunity in Spain. What better mode of transport than the foot? Seeing the gradual change of scenery from green to grainy, damp to dust.
Our first stop was just 18km from home, still in the same valley, in a place called Arrojo which has an albergue. We were the only guests that night, sleeping on a bunkbed with shiny pink nylon sheets.
At around 5 in the morning I was woken up by the shower head suddenly falling down with a crash. We both had terrible nightmares. Ghosts? A poltergeist? Definitely some unfinished business in those walls, some uncleared energy.
We were all too happy to set off early the next day, breakfastless and scared, fleeing the scene with haste to make a quick 5k to Barzana, where we fueled on coffee, pastry and orange juice. The only way to eat breakfast in Spain.
Next stop was Pola de Lena, somewhere we’d been to before when I was trying to sell wooden notebooks at the market. It had seemed a lot closer by car.
Miles of uphill asphalt wore on with fog, cruel and misleading curves which always looked like the last one til the top, but never were, bar one.
I consoled myself that downhill would be easier, which helped me through the climb. But when the time finally came to descend, the true last curve til the top, my knees quickly weakened and feet tired of the hard cold surface of the road. It was only day two.
We tried to convince ourselves otherwise, but really knew that the coming days would be worse, having seen the incline gradient on Gronze.
That was the thing with walking San Salvador in reverse: from León, it was doable, reasonable. There’d be a little bit of up and a staggered down.
To León, we had a lot a lot of up and a steep decline. Can’t complain though, we knew what we were in for. Though just theoretically.
At around the fourth day, we made it to a middle-of-mist place called Poladura de la Tercia, using highly specific dictated and translated instructions from the hospitalera in Pajares. One of the many angels who guided us along the way.
I particularly like “where the bridge, open wooden door, head to Poladura”. It was fun looking out for that mystical wooden door.
It was on this stretch that we crossed the Asturias border into Castilla y León, and sat down defeated, hiding under my pink invisibility cloak, praying for nothing other than a dry indoor place, hot chocolate and a slice of cake.
Lo and behold, a castle-like building emerged from the clouds, offering colacao and croissants to dirty walking boot.
In Poladura, we bumped into the guy who had spray-painted all of the yellow arrows along the camino so far. Of course, we’d been following them in the opposite direction.
“You’re doing the San Salvador ¡¿al revés?!” he said. In reverse?!
“Yes!” We said. It was quite common, no?
“I’ve never met anyone who has done it. It is impossible. You are crazy.” He decided.
Oops – we genuinely hadn’t decided to do this route as some heroic act of strength-proving or endurance. We really just wanted to see León.
But I mentioned angels.
It was not a religious pilgrimage for us, not directly, but there truly were angels along each step, just when we needed them.
The hospitalero at Pola de Lena could have denied us to sleep in the municipal albergue that night; we didn’t have a pilgrim’s passport because we’d set off from our house. Our route wasn’t an official way and we could have been any old hikers trying to get a cheap night’s stay. The dormitories filled quickly and he was supposed to give priority to those taking the “official way”.
His kind eyes looked into our bewildered ones and he stamped the date onto new passports for us.
“If you have any trouble at the next place, just let them know or ask them to call me” he smiled.
The lady in Pajares had been told to expect us by the time we crawled in at 7pm. There was just one bar and no kitchen in the hostel, so we couldn’t cook the chanterelles we’d foraged on the way.
People were supposed to make reservations for the bar the night before so the staff would have time to prepare, but because we’d walked al revés we hadn’t received the warning.
Luckily, Angel lady of Pajares took care of everything, making sure we got a hot meal of eggs, bread, chips & wine in a low lit corner of the pub. Cold, dark and misty in July, we felt far from home.
After that, we felt guarded in safety by the knowledge that the guy who painted the signs knew where we were going, the lady from Pajares, and the hospitalero from Lena.
Though some cash was stolen from us while we were sleeping, €150, which was quite shocking, leaving us without money to pay for the albergue where we realised what had happened. It’s a sad thing to happen in a place that usually feels so safe, but the person who did it is probably sadder, so let’s hope their camino helped them.
In Buiza we met a man from Chile who told us all about local food, and was walking 40k a day with his cousin.
In La Robla we met a scary hungry cat who would not take no for an answer.
And in León we met Diane, who had a fascinating story about life in Texas with a Mormon husband and an unexpected criminal conviction that had upheaved her life.
There are many interesting people on the way. And so much kindness.
Through the fly-filled, pulsating heat of the hills above León, we understood our friend’s comparison of the region to Africa, as we sweated and swabbed our way through each second.
The main albergue of León is located inside a beautiful abbey, with a strict curfew but relaxed atmosphere of warmth and safety. We attended pilgrim’s mass where we were blessed by nuns and were grateful for our safe arrival.
In León we drank vermouth and ate tapas, visited the cathedral and noted the incredible difference between the place we’d set off from and the place we’d arrived. I’ve never experienced such landscape and climate change at such short distance.
We stayed two nights in the abbey, enjoying the old town of León and the luxury of resting our feet.
But there was still another adventure to come before heading home: Matavenero.
That’s quite enough for one post, so I’ll leave this to be continued…