October 19, 2015
Buelna to Ribadesella: walked 20 miles + bussed 14 miles
What a day today was. Yikes.
It started out normally enough. There were twelve of us at the communal breakfast in the Buelna albergue that morning, and the hospitalera, an older woman named Victoria who’d hiked the Camino multiple times, was full of hugs and enthusiasm and love for us us peregrinos. It was a nice way to start the day.
Shortly after breakfast, we started the hike, which again took us along on the coast. It rained the whole morning almost nonstop and so views were limited, but we were walking through peaceful countryside, and the unpaved road was easy on the feet, so we didn’t mind. We both felt strong and were moving at a good pace and steadily covering the miles.
The trail took us through multiple coastal towns that were all but shuttered for the winter. Apparently, a lot of homes are owned by people from other regions of Spain and from other European countries. The economic crisis that Spain is experiencing has also taken its toll on the region, and there were many For Sale signs in the windows. The effect was to make these areas feel like ghost towns. We might walk for hours before seeing evidence of any inhabitants. It also meant that many of the hostels and hotels available for peregrinos in the summer were closed, and so we had fewer options for shelter and had to hike longer distances to get to them. Still, we weren’t too worried today because we were headed for a town that offered plenty of options.
We reached the small fishing village of Llanes mid-afternoon. It was too early to stop for the day, but Llanes was bustling with life, a refreshing change from the emptiness of the morning, and it had several warm cafes that beckoned to us, so we stopped there to eat and dry out a bit. Its medieval city center had many interesting buildings that I would have liked to further explore; unfortunately, we didn’t have the time to sightsee. In hindsight, we would have been better off cutting our day short and staying there, but instead we ate and then cruised through quickly, following the arrows out of town and back on the trail.
We reached our destination at about 5:00. After hiking 17 miles in the rain, we were ready to stop. Like the other coastal villages, this town was also empty, but at this point in the day, it didn’t just feel lonely; it felt off. We saw a woman walking her dog and then a few minutes later a surf instructor and his student getting ready to start a lesson, but other than that there was no one on the streets. Few cars passed us. The houses, many of them large and beautiful, seemed very, very closed, with no light to be seen in any of them. Perhaps it was because of the clouds and the non-stop rain and the dreary gray afternoon, but it just made us feel lonely.
On top of that, several of the hotels that we were hoping to stay at were closed for the season. We continued on through town, having zeroed in on one particular pensión (cheap hotel) that was supposed to be open year round, but couldn’t find it. After asking two police officers, who couldn’t help us, a supermarket clerk was able to direct us to the hotel, which was fortunately not too far away. Relieved, we quickly walked toward the location.
When we got there, the outside looked perfectly fine. There was a small courtyard with chairs stacked around a few tables, obviously a nice place to sit when staying here in the summer, but there didn’t appear to be any tenants here now. A sign on the front door instructed us to ring the bell, which I did several times; finally to our relief the door opened.
The smell hit us a second later, an odor of animals and stagnation and negative energy. The proprietor was pale with heavy circles under her eyes and an expressionless face, and she stared at us without offering much in the way of a greeting. We were both instantly uneasy, and yet I found myself asking if a room was available. She said yes, disappeared for a few moments to get the keys, and then took us to a separate building that housed the guest rooms. I was feeling so desperate to be done for the day that I wanted to ignore my instincts, so we followed her to the room. It was actually a large space, almost like a suite, with a bathroom, small living area, and a double bed. But like the house, smelled distinctly of animals.
For half a second we considered staying there, but we were both so uncomfortable with the place that we decided to leave.
We were now totally demoralized. It was after 5:00, and the next town with any sort of housing was at least seven miles away. It would have taken us several hours to walk there, and who knows if anything would have been open. So we decided to find the train station and go to Ribadesella, a large town that would have many options. Dale found the train station on the map about half a mile away. When we arrived, it appeared that, like everything else in town, the tiny station was closed, but when we turned the corner we came upon a teenaged couple sitting on a bench, probably looking for a bit of privacy. They were very helpful and polite, informing us that the train wouldn’t be here for another two hours but that the bus ran more frequently. They walked us to the bus stop and wished us a “bien viaje,” and we were on the bus to Ribadesella 30 minutes later. I am still grateful to those kids for their kindness.
Once we arrived in Ribadesella, we just had to find the tourist information center for directions to our hostel. About a block from the bus station, we passed a young man standing outside a cafe with his bicycle and a tiny, wet dog on a leash. As we passed him, he said, “Excuse me, do you speak English?” As a general rule, we always ignore any stranger who asks us if we speak English, because it’s been our experience that they usually want something from us. We kept going, but when we arrived at the information center, I saw in the reflection of the window that the young man had followed us, slowly tailing us on his bike. For the second time today, we were once again unsettled. The tourist information center was closed, and we were cornered and had no choice but to talk to him. It turned out he had open rooms in his home, and he was trying to talk us into staying there for the night. He talked primarily to Dale while I made sympathetic faces at his wet dog, who wagged its scraggly little tail at me. He gave the hard sell to Dale, explaining why his home was a better place to stay than the youth hostel. The man was gaunt and had a hint of desperation or delusion about him, and we were both extremely uncomfortable, but Dale listened attentively, pulling off a relaxed affability that could’ve earn him an acting award. Dale told him that we were waiting on friends but that once we met them, we would definitely consider staying at his place. While the man seemed reluctant to leave us, Dale was so encouraging that eventually he rode away, his little dog trailing after.
Once he was out of sight, we scurried away. It is impossible not to stand out with our backpacks, but we did the best we could to bury ourselves in the city center. We stopped in a cafe and used their wifi to locate the hostel, and fortunately it wasn’t too far away from us.
Fortunately, this was one of the few times we felt uneasy on the trail, and we were glad that we listened to our intuition and didn’t hesitate to keep going until we found a place that we were comfortable with.
We made it to the youth hostel around 7:30. It was a warm, inviting place with a sympathetic receptionist, and our roommate was a cheerful Swiss woman hiking solo. Everything felt normal again. It was a relief to unpack our sopping-wet backpacks and take one of the best hot showers we’d ever had!