Thursday, 7 November 2019

Day 1 On The Camino: Sarria To Portomarin

sarria welcome sign on the camino

Travel To Sarria


My first day on the Camino starts early: after a quick shower and little faffing about, I'm ready to leave the hotel at around 7am in the morning. I'm glad I've ordered a taxi for the ride to the bus station as it is pitch black outside and it would have been quite a walk - and I'll be doing lots of walking later.

I've pre-booked my bus ticket with Eurolines for the 8am service from Santiago to Lugo. There's a good chance I will miss the connection bus to Sarria which will leave when I will arrive in Lugo. In that case, I'm planning to spend the 3h gap for the next service for some exploring in Lugo, but we'll see.

The bus station has a huge underground terminal with several platforms. I do worry that I'm lost but eventually one of the bus drivers tells me to wait at platform 20, right at the end of the terminal. I check the ticket again and again but slowly, other pilgrims join me so I'm feeling less lost. I guess they are pilgrims as they wear big backpacks and are dressed in professional hiking gear. Surely, they will travel to Sarria today too and begin their pilgrimage.

By 7:50am, the bus arrives and we're on the way to Lugo. It is super modern and comfy with aircon, blacked-out windows, free WiFi and a screen for watching movies. Whilst I put Pitch Perfect 3 on I do doze off a few times. I notice the lush landscape that the bus is passing. Cities that lie in the morning fog are starting to wake up. If you wouldn't know you're in Spain, you wouldn't expect it, as none of the scenery outside looks typical Spanish. The sunlight only breaks through shortly then disappears behind a thick carpet of clouds. It gets cold, dark and rainy and I'm putting on my rain jacket to keep warm. The prospect of hanging around for 3h in Lugo doesn't look too appealing to me.

Into The Wild


Luck is on my side though, as my bus pulls in 2 minutes ahead of schedule and I catch the connection to Sarria. It's a very quick in-and-out situation but 30 minutes later I arrive in Sarria. Now I need to find my way to the Camino so from the bus station I head North to the Monastery of Magdalena. 

I walk uphill for a while until I reach a small alley which is seamed with Albergues - the typical pilgrim accommodation. I can feel I'm heading in the right way and tadah! there's the first Camino sign showing the way forward. I'm excited and buzzing. The Monastery comes into sight and for the first time, I draw my Pilgrimage Passport and get my first sello (stamp). My adventure on the Camino has officially begun!

sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino
sarria welcome sign on the camino

The weather has cleared up now and I'm about to head into the wild and unknown. For the next five days, I'll be following the Camino sign - a yellow scallop on a blue background for 120km to Santiago De Compostela. I'm excited and disappear into the forest. It is peaceful and I'm listening to the sound of nature. The forest stretches uphill and I can't stop thinking I'm on a quest...like in the Fellowship of the Ring. The trees are old and mysterious. There are lush greenery and small streams and it slowly starts to heat up. The hill is pretty steep so I'm taking my first break. Two Australian ladies from Sydney who have been on the Camino for 7 weeks join me and we have a little chat before they start walking again. They are trained so within 10 minutes they are miles ahead of me.

Leaving sarria into the wild
mysterious tree on the camino
Forest on the camino in the area of sarria

Connecting With Locals Part 1


It is shortly after midday and suddenly very hot. My backpack starts to get heavy and I've finished all of my water - but I can do this. Although I pass through many villages, they are dead and I haven't seen a single soul for hours. Eventually, I'm forced to take another break and I end up at A Casa De Carmen. Sweaty and hot, I enter the beautiful yellow Albergue with its neat courtyard and tonnes of plants everywhere. The door is open. I knock and go inside on the lookout for some civilisation. It looks welcoming and warm inside so I end up in the kitchen where there's a lovely lady, probably in her mid-50's prepping lunch over one of these really old school cooking ranges. Beef stew and boiled potatoes as far as I can tell. 

She sees me half dead and the next thing I know I'm showered in a waterfall of Spanish. With hands and feet as well as Google Translate I try to communicate with her, but she has gone into full Mum Mode. She has me sat down, my water bottle already refilled to the brim and a glass of Aloe Vera Squash in my hands. The sugar in the drink feels so good. We're joined by one of the housekeepers who speaks broken English but she helps with the communication. My rescuer is Carmen herself and she proudly shows me her guestbook which is filled with tonnes of pictures of thankful pilgrims and heartwarming Thank You notes. I ask her how long she's been running the Albergue and Carmen's eyes light up. She points at a couple of framed pictures of herself visiting some of her former guests then touches her heart and fondly talks about that having the Albergue, meeting lots of different and interesting people has been the best thing in her life. I'm touched on how passionately she talks about her business and love, how fulfilled she is by being part of the Camino.

a casa de carmen on the camino de frances

I'm having a lovely time and she really wants me to stay. She would even share some lunch with me but I have to politely decline. I tell her I've got accommodation booked in Portomarin, so I have to be back on the road soon. Carmen and her housekeeper look at each other and then make big eyes when I mention Portomarin. It is still ages away! Carmen refills my sweet Aloe Vera drink, then shows me the bathroom and gives me a big hug when I'm about to leave. There's even more Spanish, kisses and more Spanish. I can't help it so I give her a 5 EUR note as a Thank You and promise to email her once I'm back home. Refreshed and happy I'm back on the road.

The Afternoon On The Camino


The rest of the day is rather unspectacular. The rural landscape reminds me a lot of The Shire in the Lord of The Rings. Lots of wheat fields, veg patches, scarecrows, small villages and in between the stoney winding path of the Camino. It is rarely flat, mostly uphill and if it is flat the path is seamed with big stones. It is incredibly hot, pestering flies are all over me and the smell of cow poo is intrusive. I can tell it is early fall as acorns and spikey chestnuts fall on my head throughout the day. The rare medieval village churches on my way are unfortunately closed so there's no chance for me to collect a sello. I'm alone for most of the day and only get passed by cyclists now and again. For most parts of the Camino, there's a fence of stone plates running along the path, so there's plenty of opportunities to take breaks and rest. Although I'm in the middle of the Spanish countryside, I have a great reception to check my progress. It is frustrating. I've only made 4km in the past hour! I do worry that at this rate I may make it to Portomarin after dark and it is only Day 1.

steep and stoney path on the camino de frances
Camino pillar on the camino de frances

At 5pm I arrive at a small converted barn which sells ice cream, souvenirs and other snacks. It is very popular with other pilgrims and I get to meet Gary and his gang. Gary is a rustic American who travels with a German and another American. They've been on Day 30+ so at the next village, they will find an Albergue and call it a day. We have a nice casual chat and they want to know my motivation for the Camino. I out myself having only just started today and say that I left London after 6 years of working. I'm seeking "more" in life than the 9 to 5 grind. We have an interesting and deep conversation whilst I nibble on my ice cream. Gary's American friend tells me he used to have a flat in London but has sold it a few years ago. Now he's regretting this decision as the flat would be worth millions today. Their German friend is probably a bit younger than me. She is amazed that I had time to put make up on for the hike and is also highly interested in my backpack. She can't believe how much stuff I've managed to pack in there so I share some of my organisation secrets with her. In hindsight, I shouldn't have done that cause Gary would mock me for the next couple of days about my outfits.

The Final Kilometres To Portomarin


Anyway, it's time to keep going. I've got another 2h or so ahead of me and I'd like to arrive before dark. The few scattered settlements I walk through are deserted and there's no living soul for the rest of my hike. It is very quiet on the Camino and I must look odd from afar, trekking alone on the empty road. I have heavily underestimated the distance so for tomorrow the plan is to start hiking as soon as the sun is up. 

The evening is here and I can see Portomarin in the distance. I will just have to go downhill and then I'm there. Well, the Camino has it's own will and the road is long and winding. It is so steep that I slide in my shoes and keep hurting my toes. Not sure what is worse, up or downhill. So it goes on for 30 minutes. I do make it to Portomarin. Shortly after 7pm, I cross the iconic bridge over the river Minho. The village thrones on a little hill whilst the river is misty and dark running slowly under my feet. The bridge is, in fact, a bit scary. It is not very wide, so the space for walking is tight. I have to keep my eyes fixed to not trip over my feet, which are hurting a lot. Only a few more metres and then I'm at the guesthouse.  I'm not fed up (yet) but I would like to be there now and end the day.

Crossing the river minho to get to Portomarin
Portomarin in Galicia Spain

On the other side of the bridge at the entrance of the village is a medieval and very steep set of stairs and I secretly hope that this is not the way to go to the guesthouse. I quickly check on Google Maps for its location and see that it is a further 1km away from the village. Ok, I can do this. So I'm moving past the village to a small peninsula by the river. It is the most remote guesthouse I've ever been to. In the surrounding grounds, some ponies roam freely around and come over to say hello. Then I pass through an autumnal apple and pear orchard and see the traditional Galician stone house. I'm finally at tonight's checkpoint!

apple orchard in portomarin
casa santa marina in portomarin

The place is huge with a main house, a lovely guestroom for dinner, terrace and a couple of bungalows scattered around the huge orchard. The lady at "reception" gives me a room in the house instead of the bungalows, so I feel less cut off from the world and a bit more included if that makes sense. The room is basic but nice and cosy. I even have a little terrace so I can watch the eerie fog ascending over the river and take off my hiking boots. I'm grateful I brought my flip flops along because my toes are slightly battered and can now enjoy being freed of the tight hiking boots. It is bedtime because the darkness crept in way too fast and I only managed some pages of my Strelecky book to wind down from the day.           

I keep thinking back to this morning in Lugo. If I had missed the connection and killed 3h, I would still be out on the Camino. Instead, I'm tugged up in bed and can have a 10h rest now.

Two things are absolutely clear for tomorrow: it will start early and it will be tough.

Thanks so much for reading,
Till next time,

Carolin
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