October 28, 2015
Lourenzá to Gontán, 14.5 miles
This was our hilliest, most challenging day since the mountains of the Basque Country, with 740 meters (~2400 feet) elevation gain. Fortunately, we are much more conditioned now, almost one month later, and while the hills weren’t easy, they weren’t cruel either.
The trail took us through the ancient city of Mondoñedo. Like all of the European countries we visited, Spain’s history is too circuitous and confusing to get into here, but suffice it to say that for a time, Galicia was an independent country–a kingdom no less–and Mondoñedo was one of its seven capitals. We spent only enough time here to have a coffee with Hannah and Detlef, but we did take a quick peek inside the beautiful Mondoñedo Cathedral, the highlight of the town. Built in the thirteenth century, the cathedral is a national monument.
The wonderful people of Galicia
One of the things we love best about Galicians is how friendly they are. While we met many wonderful people in the other regions, the Galicians were the most consistently friendly and welcoming to peregrinos. They seem very proud of their region’s close association with the Camino, and the Galician government has invested significantly in Camino infrastructure, including the creation of some of the best albergues on the trail.
We were approached regularly by locals curious about our journey, and the fact that we were Americans seemed to fascinate them as well. Apparently not many Americans walk Camino del Norte. Just outside of Mondoñedo, for example, a very elderly man came out of his apartment and wanted to know more about us. When we told him we were from the US, he launched into a conversation about American politics old and new. He had an admiration for the Kennedys, especially Jackie, and he knew that the current president was Barack Obama and also that we would be electing a new president next year. A very well-informed Spaniard!
Once we left Mondoñedo, we again entered the hilly, remote countryside. After a time, we came upon a ramshackle house perched on the side of a hill. A woman emerged from the house and called out, “Peregrinos! Welcome!” She then invited us into her house for tea. We were already behind schedule because of that long coffee break in Mondoñedo, but we felt it would be wrong to refuse, so we agreed. We sat in her modest kitchen, where she sat prepping fresh beets from her garden while talking to us. She was also in the process of canning more fresh vegetables from her garden, and glass jars were boiling in a large pot on her ancient stove. She truly lived off of the fruits of her own labor.
She gave us tea and talked to us enthusiastically about her own experience as a peregrino several years earlier. She was an anthropologist from Spain who had worked all over South America but, after completing the Camino, decided to quit her job and settle in Galicia. She bought an old farmhouse and now hosts peregrinos in her home. In fact, an Italian couple who had recently finished their Camino had come back to stay with her for a month and assist with some of the home’s many needed renovations. After enjoying the tea and their company for a little while, we said “adios” and got back on the trail.
The weather was its usual schizophrenic self, and we continued to go through steady costume changes, but the walk was beautiful and mostly on unpaved paths or roads. It was quiet and peaceful and altogether lovely.
Galicia has several large cities that support important industries such as shipbuilding, textiles, and manufacturing of automobiles, and yet much of the region is still very rural, with many communities isolated by the mountains.
When we entered rural Galicia, it instantly felt different, timeless, as if we could have been in any century other than the present one. The villages are small and the buildings, built of granite and slate, are gray with age.
Most homes had a small rectangular building in the yard, made of wood or stone and elevated off of the ground, and we later learned it was something called an hórreo.
In English, we might call these buildings a corncrib or granary. The hórreo is raised off the ground by pillars, and there are often discs at the top of each pillar to keep rodents from being able to enter. We had seen these in Asturias as well, but something distinctive about the Galician hórreos was that almost all of them had spikes on the top. These spikes were supposedly related to ancient Celtic superstitions and were meant to prevent evil spirits from entering. We also saw these spikes on the rooftops and chimneys of many homes. The result was to make the villages seem positively medieval, but in a fascinating way.
Ending the day with friends
We were happy to again meet Detlef and Hannah at the albergue. The only other pilgrims staying there were four bicyclists from Spain. While people traveling on foot get priority in the albergues, peregrinos on bicycles and even horses (yes, you can do the Camino on horseback!) can stay if there are open beds.
We again spent much of the evening visiting with Hannah and Detlef. Hannah is slim and very pretty. She has dark hair that she always pulls back into a bun, but wiry wisps are always escaping. She usually keeps to herself but has opened up quite a bit since we’ve been staying together for multiple days. As she has opened up, she has proven to be very warm and engaging, and she has a sharp sense of humor.
Detlef is very tall and has long blonde hair that he wears in a ponytail. He’s energetic, enthusiastic, and inquisitive and not afraid to launch into discussions about philosophy or politics.
This evening we enjoyed a long conversation about all kinds of things, including reasons that we’re all doing the Camino. Both Hannah and Detlef have walked the Camino before, and it was very meaningful, even transformative, for both of them. This is Hannah’s second Camino, and she said that she was out here to refocus on life’s priorities and return to the basics. Detlef is on his fifth, and he said he returns regularly to review the lessons he’s learned on previous Caminos, because it’s easy to forget them once you get back to everyday life. He’s also surprised to find that each time he returns, the Camino has something new to teach him.
The bicyclists were friendly but the language barrier kept us from socializing. They were also a a bit more boisterous than the four of us. At about 10:00 (curfew time at the albergue), they left for drinks. When they came back, they went to bed but lay there talking loudly and farting even louder, and each time one of the men passed gas, they laughed riotously. Were we still on the Camino, or had we somehow been transported to a summer camp for adolescents?? Ah, life in albergues. I can call this Camino experience many things, but boring is not one of them.