Hallelujah! My feet are so much better. Still steaks, but more A point versus Bleu. I am also changing rain tactics, replacing my cotton t-shirts by fancy clima-gear. My brother really pushed me to take his set. Thanks for insisting, amigo, it works marvellously. The weather is miserable, like Belgium in November. With flying ponchos and hollow backs, the peloton fights its way against a glacial wind. It’s blowing so hard, everybody’s leaning forward like Buster Keaton in that famous Dust Bowl scene.
On days like this, it’s difficult to appreciate the scenery. You’re just looking forward to that hot cuppa coffee in the next village. Not that there are many. After Villamayor de Monjardin, we’re facing 12 km of open countryside. An empty food stall is one of the rare shelters along the road. The rest of the journey is one blurry, grey zone. Nothing memorable. Many pilgrims want to continue to Sansol, 7 km down the road. I’m happy to call it quits in Los Arcos. I’ve learned my lesson.
The Albergue Isaac Santiago has a nice surprise. It’s run by Flemish volunteers. People like Eddy and Bernard from Courtrai, hardly 20 km from my native village. For the last few days, I’ve been talking French but today I can express myself in heavy Flemish dialect. Geestig van nog ne keer Vlaemsch te kunn’n klapp’n. It gives me a unique chance to get more insight into the daily life of the Hospitaleros. Bernard and Eddy - both retired and ex-pilgrims - are here for 2 weeks. Their day starts early. At 6 am they start waving the pilgrims goodbye. By 8 everybody should be out of the building so they can start cleaning. With a bit of luck, the job’s done around 9, leaving Bernard and Eddy 3 hours of free time. The first pilgrims already start arriving around noon. Everybody needs to be registered and shown a bed. The day ends at 10 pm, when the lights go off. “Did you experience any weird stuff?” I ask. “An Asian pilgrim had his hiking boots stolen. Thank god, we found a pair of old sneakers, so the man could continue his journey.” says Bernard. “And this morning, somebody nicked my pack of Vim” ads Eddy “What the hell is somebody gonna do with a box of scouring powder along the Camino?”
A spectacular mass is in full swing when I enter the nearby Santa Maria church. It's First Communion Day so the whole village looks their Sunday best. Boys are dressed like sailors, little girls like princesses. I join The North Face army sitting in the back. The priest seems to acknowledge our presence, saying a few kind words about ‘peregrinos’ and ‘Camino.’ We are clearly respected. Meanwhile, a choir sings their hearts out. Acoustic guitar and accordion ad an exotic Latino touch. They won’t make the final of X Factor, but I am deeply moved nevertheless.
The Church itself is a mix-n-match of every possible style between the 12th and 18th century. The cloister is Gothic, the bell tower Renaissance, the facade Plateresque. Inside, a 14th century Virgin Mary with Child is presiding over a huge Baroque altar piece. On the north wall, I see hilarious scenes of saints, painted in a naive wanna-be Flemish style. The back of the church houses a spooky collection of religious memorabilia: a crown of thorns, an old Bible and a saint in a glass coffin. It’s like the Hard Rock Cafe for believers. Creepy.
Albergue Isaac Santiago - Calle San Lazaro - +34 948 441 091 - open: Apr-Oct, from noon till 10 pm, 6 euro - 96 beds spread over 2 buildings. Comfy albergue, on the other side of town, just outside the city walls, past the church. Kitchen, vending machine with beer, little safe boxes to charge your phone. Try to score a bed in one of the little side rooms on the first floor of the main building.
Plenty of little restaurants and pubs in the charming gallery, facing the church.