At Home in the Albergue?
If you looked down on this region of Northern Spain from space early in the morning you would see a line of thousands every single day stretching 800 kilometres, from the mountains to the sea. All plodding slowly to their mecca; Santiago De Compostella.
But how is it that they can cover the landscape for all those hours in the morning but melt into the horizon after midday and not be seen again until early the next morning? Where do they go? Today we found out the answer when we stumbled into an albergue in the town of Hospital de Orbega. An albergue is a pilgrim refuge; a cheap bed for the night, like a youth hostel used to be before they went up- market.
In the albergue
Twenty pairs of boots sat on the rack, and plants trailed down the walls. Stones placed carefully on the hall table were painted with welcome greetings in every language, as well as one that told the pilgrim world that ‘Tony’ was once ‘ere. A tiny courtyard led through to a wider garden and an amply chested woman with blond ringlets beckoned us in with great enthusiasm.
We had been sent to this town albergue; the former parish house, by an old lady in charge of stamping our pilgrim passports in the church. She told us it would be a rest stop for our ninos, and our guidebook had sealed the deal by recommending popping in for warm hospitality which we had convinced ourselves meant tea and cake. Instead we were shown a tiny kitchen and some showers and asked if we’d be booking in for the night.
I’m not sure this is for us
We muttered something non-committal and entered the garden. By any stretch of the imagination it wasn’t Eden. In fact it was remarkably similar to the patches of scrub-land we had been camping on for the last month. In the middle was a tall cross in black and white metal, with a shrine underneath of more pebbles, pot plants, and what appeared to be cabbage leaves. A few metres from the cross a woman in a black bikini lay face down on the dried grass. On her sat a man wearing a leather cowboy hat and cycle shorts, earnestly giving her a full body massage, pummelling her back and then her legs.
All around the courtyard there was pastel and white washing hanging everywhere; absolutely everywhere to dry; on whirligigs, washing lines and trees. On wooden benches several people sat earnestly recording their inner journeys in small notebooks, and sticking bits of paper into journals. Others lazed in the sun. I thought I saw Jimmy Saville behind a bush.
After our mostly solitary journey on the bikes, it was a bit too much for me; and too many weird people. Too many people crowded into one hot, dusty, dry and washing filled space. And there was no tea and cake. But we had to wait a polite amount of time before we could leave.
A polite goodbye
Matthew redeemed the situation for us by announcing he needed the toilet. Twenty minutes later he was ready to leave.
‘Beer and camping?’ I said to Stuart.
We tried to creep out discreetly but the line of people queuing up to wish us a ‘Buen Camino’ nearly tripped us up.