I’ve been walking for 3 weeks, but why does it feel like 3 days? I guess the Camino changes every notion of time, distance and money. Mondays look like Fridays, every day we walk. In normal life 25 km is a non-distance, here it’s a day march. And what can you get for 5 euro? On the Camino, quite a lot, a night in a hostel for example.
I don’t know if the Camino makes you a believer, but it sure makes you a good soldier. By now I can pack my bag blindly. Every item goes in exactly the same spot. Not because I’m a compulsive hiker, it just saves trouble. Same goes for foot injuries. The minute you feel a burning sensation, stop to fix the problem before it becomes a problem. If not, you won’t make Santiago. I’ve learned my lesson in Pamplona (Day 2). My feet are finally blister-free and I’m off pain killers. Let's keep it this way. We’ve all grown into disciplined walking machines. We wake up at dawn and start hiking at 7 when there’s enough light. After lunch, the strong sun reminds us to call it quits. But today is cloudy: 4 pm looks as miserable as 10 am. I just keep going. The villages are nicely spread, all 6 km (1 hour) apart, allowing great pace. Bridges, churches, fortresses, wine yards ... all there.
With its roman bridge, picturesque church and stone houses, Molinaseca is absolutely breathtaking. A valid alternative for El Acebo. After a few more miles, I pass a makeshift cafeteria advertising 'coffee and hugs.' I order both. To my surprise, the friendly waitress comes from behind the counter to give me the warmest hug ever. “Santiago is not the end” she kindly whispers in my ear. A little further, the Camino splits up, not into 2 but 3 ways to reach Ponferrada. I immediately delete the concrete road of option 1. Number 2 goes through a small village and seems to be the safe bet. Ah, what the heck, let’s pick the strange winding road behind Door 3. I’m rewarded with thousands of poppies greeting me from every angle. After I cross another lovely roman bridge, I’m welcomed by the medieval walls of Ponferrada. I decide to leave The Way to scroll through town. It takes me quite some effort to get back on the Camino. What did the Bible say again about leaving the righteous path?
In this part of Spain, pilgrims are highly respected. The Buen Camino’s sound louder with every step. When I ask for directions, a man gently taps me on the shoulder as if I’m a saint. I finally get back on track and set my mind on Villafranca del Bierzo. That should bring the total mileage to 40 km, even more with all the scenic detours. Deep down I’m chasing Morten, my Danish doppelganger, who’s gotten ahead of me. A good gamble. I’m all too happy to meet my Viking friend at my end destination.
After 3 days in Boboland, I manage to book myself at another hippie dump. A Polish hospitalero goes by the name 'Arcadia.' Probably a nom-de-plume, his real name must be Lech or Pjotr. He’s a nice chap, rushing from one job to another. Hospitaleros are the roadies of the Camino working their butts off to keep us pilgrims on the road. I truly admire their spirit. They sign up to escape the 9 to 5 rat race, only to slave 24/7. Respect. What the Albergue Ave Fenix de Familia Jato lacks in comfort, it makes up for in heritage. The patron is called Jesus. The man turns out to be a living legend, a personal friend of Paulo Coelho. When the famous writer came to celebrate his birthday in Madrid, a limousine was sent all the way here to pick up Jesus. His family has been welcoming pilgrims for many generations. The hostel is one of the oldest along the Camino and it kinda shows. The room has a unique 'Air de Pelerins.' I have to admit, I’m not without guilt. Open the window, anyone? The water in the bathroom is freezing, resulting in the most efficient shower ever: soap-rinse-scream!
Dinner (“Are you vegetarian?”) comes with a Jesus speech and everybody holding hands. Hello Woodstock. I’m sharing a table with students from the US, but conversation is kinda artificial. I probably sound hopelessly blasé talking about my career in advertising, my life in Malaysia and my surfing adventures in Indonesia. I’m seriously considering a humble alter ego. “Hello, I’m Red and I’m a car mechanic.” A few French pilgrims whine about the good old days. “It ain’t the same anymore. 10 years ago, pilgrims making reservations were shown the door. And cyclists couldn’t even enter.” How the times have changed, with posters now advertising luggage delivery. When I return to the room, a snore-fest is in full swing. For once I don’t mind. How can I get angry? I’m in the house of Jesus.
Albergue Ave Fenix de Familia Jato - Calle Santiago 10, Villafranca del Bierzo - +34 987 542 655 - Open all year, 2 to 10 pm, 80 beds, 6 euro. Breakfast 2 euro, pilgrim’s meal 8 euro. Rough but rocking.