Was this deja vu, all over again?
As we started walking this morning, I was already thinking of how I would be describing the day in the blog. After the first 3km, I had already planned it out as something like this: “Please just re-read yesterday’s blog post because today’s walk was the same except that the highway is now on our right, instead of left. Also, the petrol station at the halfway mark today is near a small town, rather than an abandoned restaurant. Everything else is the same.”
As it turns out, that storyline would have done a huge disservice to the lovely walk we just completed. The beginning and end may have been a bit of a rehash of the “walk on a track near the highway” but the middle was great.
The weather, once again, was perfect for walking most of the day. It was still cloudy and windy although the sun burned through the clouds for the last ninety minutes. I think it did that specifically so that we could enjoy the shade of the first trees we have seen in several days.
After 3km from starting this morning, we turned away from the highway far enough that you could neither see nor hear it. The track also became a bit hilly although we were only going up and down dozens of meters, not real climbs. We were still in Los Monegros but a fair portion of the way on one side was cultivated and heavily irrigated farms.
At 11km, we reached the lovely little town of Peñalba. I was irritated that we again seem to have been directed around the edge of the village rather than through the center, past the church and, just as importantly, a bar, like the French Camino route always does. We met a lovely older couple on the road, in their eighties or nineties, who wanted to chat about the Camino quite a bit but eventually directed us to the only open bar / restaurant in town – each pointing in opposite directions. We took the man’s advice, figuring he knew the quickest way to get a pint.
Inside the unnamed bar – but entering via a doorway with an impressive coat of arms above the threshold – we found a delightful barmaid serving the iciest limónada we ever had. She was fun to speak with, rightfully proud of her bar and very knowledgeable of the Camino Ignaciano.
Leaving the village, we spied a pilgrim a few hundred meters in front of us. Could it be Swedish Andreas? It took us a few kilometers over the hilly terrain to catch up with him but sure enough, it was Andreas. He told us that after we last met, just short of Venta de Santa Lucía, he stopped for dinner and a rest there. After feeling rejuvenated, he then continued on but he did not make it 10km to the petrol station, halfway between the next stage to Bujaraloz. He slept out on the path near the highway before walking the rest of the way to Bujaraloz yesterday and staying in a different hostal than we did. He didn’t mind the outdoor sleep, he said, but he hated the packaged sandwich he bought for his breakfast at the petrol station! Why could he not have left a warning for me???
After our chat with Andreas, we reached a point where we were within spitting distance of the highway. He had been told by friends passing through a few days earlier that the Camino path for the next few kilometers was muddy and unpleasant. As he was in walking sandals, he did not want to risk it and chose to walk the final 5 or 6km along the highway shoulder. We got daring and stayed on the trail. Sure enough, there were some muddy bits but most of it was not so bad. Usually we could just walk on the relatively dry edge but sometimes we just plodded along in the shallow mud. On one occasion, we had to finish making an alternative path through the brush that appeared like other pilgrims had started. Only at one brief spot did we end up in the real muck but not even up to my socks, thankfully.
Approaching the village of Candasnos, we got a little shot of reality. We could see a sign on the highway which pointed out the way to Candasnos, Fraga, Lleida and Barcelona. As Monserrat and Manresa are both in the outskirts of Barcelona, that sign covered five of our last nine stops. We are getting close to the end of our Camino, which is always bittersweet.
One more thing I need to say about today’s walk is that the orange arrows, if combined with a little bit of faith, were definitely enough to guide us on our entire route today. It may have been possible on other days but I usually paid more attention to the GPS. Today, I specifically kept an eye out for the arrows and every spot we needed one, one was there. Well done whoever is keeping those in view.
I guess I have another thing to say about these relatively “boring” sections of the Camino. The challenge of these days is not just to take in all the beautiful scenery, it is sometimes to find the beauty and God’s handiwork where it is harder to spot. Instead of admiring the gorgeous mountains and valleys, we watch two birds dueling in flight; we laugh at frogs scattering as we approach their puddle; we take time to speak with the old village folk who have so much to share; we admire the hard work of the desert farmers; we revel as the wind makes the crops dance (dance, dance, wherever you may be. I am the Lord of the dance said He).
For those following us, as noted, it is possible to follow arrows the entire way today. The GPS tracks seem to take you closer to, or even on, the highway for the last 7km. Follow the arrows and you will be rewarded. Also, there is a hotel 2km past Candasnos, right on tomorrow’s route. We tried to make a reservation there but they were fully occupied (thankfully, we have a cheap local phone for making reservations as it has proven useful a few times). You should consider trying that hotel too. It will even out the length of today’s and tomorrow’s stages a bit better. It will probably be more expensive than the two pensións in town but….
For no particular reason, we decided to make a reservation at the Pensión El Pilar rather than the other option, Pensión La Colina. The two are close to each other as you enter town and are both above a bar & restaurant. As we entered the bar, the barman immediately sent us upstairs, suggested we hurry to get ready for lunch as it was late. As we creaked down the long, dark hallway, I started to be reminded of the Bates Hotel in Psycho.
When we opened the door, with the old fashion skeleton key, we were greeted with two cots, two plastic chairs and a ceramic tile floor with most of the tiles loosely rattling under foot. There was a set of shuttered french doors leading to what was obviously a balcony so I checked the only other door in the room which turned out to be a rather dingy closet with spare blankets left over from the war. To complete the entire picture, the room was otherwise rather tastefully decorated with white paint and an ashtray.
We ran back downstairs, to ask the man if he had a room with a bathroom, hoping he would say “no” and giving us an excuse to leave. He replied that we needed to open the “other” doors so we mournfully climbed the stairs again. Sure enough, the balcony has been converted to something similar to a bathroom. It has a shower stall at one end, its view not tarnished with a curtain or door. Inches away is a toilet, in a puddle, with the flushing pull chain reaching down from the overhead cistern. On the other end of the room is a perfectly functioning sink, below a mirror whose reflective silvering tarnished sometime during the Great Depression. This is where we are calling home for the night.
Edited to note: we just ran into Andreas downstairs. He had stopped at La Colina to look at the rooms. He was so frightened that he walked to the hotel outside of town. It turns out that the hotel was closed temporarily, rather than full. He came back to town and took a room here at El Pilar. He figures that this is much better than the Colina. Wow.
Peace y’all. Pray for Denise.