Zamora to Santiago: Wild, wet and wonderful.

In 2004 Barbara and I walked the Via de la Plata . It took us 40 days. Our Easter on the Camino: Seville to Santiago was to be a nine-day bus tour along the same route. My “virtual” trip has taken, so far, 62 days. I promise we will get to Santiago.

One of the lasting effects of Camino walking is that I am most happy spending my days outside, wherever I happen to be. I have become as feral as our old cat Swartzy.

With the stay-at-home rule still in effect, there are not many places to go. There are few places I would rather be than in my garden. But enough is enough and I have run out of weeds to pull.

It’s time to put the boots back on and start the final “walk” to Santiago.

As you can see from the map we have been working our way northward, parallel to the Portuguese border – Seville, Zafra, Mérida, Cáceres, Salamanca.

Our next stop is Zamora to visit the Queseria Vincente Pastor. Pastor is a prize- winning cheesemaker whose cheeses are sold all over the world, including Harrods in London. He has been making 100% natural cheeses for twenty years.

The word “pastor” in Spanish means shepherd and his family have been shepherds for six generations. It is no surprise then that his cheeses are made using the milk from his own flock of sheep.

We will have an opportunity to tour the Queseria and sample some of his cheeses.

Back on the bus with bellies and shopping bags full of our favorite cheeses, we settle in. Not having to carry them in a backpack, we don’t have to worry about the weight of a few rounds of cheese.

North of Zamora the Via de la Plata splits. One way continues straight to Astorga where it meets the Camino Francais and proceeds to Santiago. The other bears left and becomes what is called the Via Sanabrés or the Mozarabic Way. We will follow the Sanabrés route.

Time first to take a siesta or catch up on your emails. (Our bus has wifi – as they say in Spanish, “wee fee”). We will take a detour and venture 22 kms into Portugal to spend the night in Braganza, another walled Roman city.

We’ll have time to stretch our legs in the city center and visit Braganza’s most notable landmark, the 12th century Domus Municipalis. This structure is Portugal’s oldest and largest town hall.

Incapable of missing a meal, we’ll go to our hotel on the hill just outside of the city and enjoy a sumptuous dinner before heading to our rooms.

Since each room in the Pestãna Hotel has a private balcony, we’ll have one last view of the medieval castle before we fall into bed. With luck Joanna will let us sleep in before we head for Ourense – naturally after a hearty breakfast.

Bus Tour Day Six. We check out at 9am – no sleeping in. We are off to Ourense. We’ll tour the Cathedral of Saint Martin with its polychromed Portico of Paradise built by students of Master Mateo. In Santiago Cathedral we will see the Portico of Glory, the Master’s own masterpiece.

The Ourense Cathedral dates from the 11th century. In the Capallia del Cristo Crucificado, described by one church historian as “Flamboyant Baroque,” we can see the 12th century wooden Christus, one of the most graphic, famous and beloved in Spain, brought here from a small church in Finisterre.

Leaving Ourense , it is time for another walk on the Camino. As you will discover the topography in this area is very different from what we have seen so far.

The Camino Sanebrés is one of the least popular Camino routes. The route is more hilly, the altitude is higher; there are a lot of steep ups and downs. In addition, the towns are smaller and the facilities are fewer and more modest. The distances of each section are longer. It is a challenging trek, not a walk in the park; hard but rewarding.

You will be spared the taxing climbs, but you will get to experience the spectacular scenery.

Barbara and I were lucky to have walked here for 20 days. Let me share with you our wild, wet, wonderful walk from Zamora to Santiago.

When we began in Seville the temperatures were in the 90s. It was beastly hot and dry so we foolishly sent home all of our warm clothes, except our hats and gloves.

In Salamanca the wind changed and the temperature dropped. Scenes like the one below taken in the early afternoon should have been a warning. The weather was changing. It was going to take more than a hat and mittens to stay warm; we were freezing.

Before we left Salamanca we rebought the same warm clothes we had sent home. The store where we shopped offered only one fleece which was available in each of our sizes. We left Salamanca in our red and green plaid jackets looking like two teddy bears. It was not a fashion statement but we were cozy.

Initially the path was like the earlier section. We walked through fields of grain on a path of red clay and small pebbles, edged with brambles including Cistus and raspberries. One tasted,the other smelled, delicious.

We ate raspberries until our lips and our fingers were purple.

We drank in the scent of the Cistus and admired the flowers. We should have eaten them and rubbed them all over ourselves.

I recognised the smell as it is frequently used as a base for incense. What I did not know is that the flowers when ground into essential oils can calm nerves, promote sleep, improve concentration, perfect skin tone, alleviate joint pain, treat Lyme disease and even Ebola. In other words Cistus “is a simple treatment for many if not most chronic illnesses.” Sounds like High Church has it right: more smoke.

About halfway down that long red road it began to rain. By the time we arrived at the alberge we were both drenched. To add insult to injury the door was locked. Barbara had to sit in the rain by the hostel while I backtracked into town, located the person with the key and retraced my steps to the shelter.

Thus began what I referred to as the rainbow section. We walked. It rained. The sun came out. We saw a rainbow. It rained. We saw another rainbow. And so it went. Rain, sun, rainbow. It was not unusual to see ten rainbows a day. I took dozens of photos and finally stopped. They were starting to look alike.

Walking in the rain has a funny side effect. Your standards lower dramatically. The harder it rained, the less fussy we were about our lodging.

We arrived in this town having walked all day in a driving rain. The municipal alberge was closed while a new one was being built.

At the town hall, the mayor advised us to continue 10 miles to the next town. Enough was enough. No more walking for us. Our standards hit an all time low.

We’d sleep in the old alberge. After all it had a roof, not all of the windows were broken, and it was unlocked. The very talented Barbara managed to jimmy the electricity and give us some light. The beds were bug free. We did forego a shower. We took ourselves out to dinner at the local where we were treated like royalty by the owner and the domino players. It might not have been our first choice but that night it was as good as The Ritz.

By the next morning the rain was gone and the landscape began to change. The pebbles became full grown rocks and although it still rained, the view was stunning.

High up in the mountains we enjoyed our solitude and walked on.

We walked many mornings in the fog. Gone were the rainbows. We were enveloped in a thick gray mist.

Other days, as the sun burned through the fog, the colors changed to sepia and blue. It was like walking through fine old oil painting.

Every so often a brilliant clear blue sky would burst forth. One morning the entire landscape was black and white. Day after day Mother Nature put on quite a show. Our only worry was not walking off the cliff as we gawked at the spectacle.

We tromped through October, collecting stamps in our passports and looking for the next Santiago statue.

We wrote our names on shells and hung them on the ceiling, joining pilgrims who had walked before us.

We crossed our final Roman bridge. We ate chestnuts and walnuts. We sampled new wine in a local bodega – a real bodega – and modelled our matching teddy bear fleeces. We enjoyed our daily siesta. We cleaned the mud off of our boots. We savored the sunsets.

Autumn was in full swing. Everything was turning gold. Barbara fit right in.

We were coming down the home stretch. In Galicia, gold turned to green. The temperate climate produced some surprising plants. The fog, while romantic in the country, was terrifying on the road, especially a road where the white line veered off into the ditch.

The alberges in Galicia are run by the province or local municipality. Many towns will restore an abandoned village eyesore and turn it into a handsome well-appointed hostel. This was one of the best we stayed in. It had everything- light, heat, a kitchen, a lounge, a garden and long solid beds.

Although we were the only two people in the refuge, Barbara still wanted her privacy. Note, this night we were able to sleep with, not in, our teddy bear fleeces. We had heat.

Galicia averages 10 inches of rain a month in October. It rained part of every day for 20 days. Sometimes it poured all day. The paths went from the odd puddle to lakes to running rivers. We no longer walked beside the streams. Our path had become the stream. We gave up trying to get around the wate and splashed right down the middle.

In spite of our rain gear, we were soaked to the skin. To stay warm we moved faster and hoped that between our pack covers, zip lock bags and trash bag liners, our pack contents would stay dry.

Each night we took off our wet boots and clothes and left them to drip. We put on our set of dry clothes. Each morning we groaned our way back into the still wet set. We carefully stored our dry sets in ziplock bags that we then put into heavy-duty trash bags. We stashed the trash bags in the backpacks, covered the packs with the backpack liners, and hoped for the best.

Our clothes never did completely dry overnight. Our attempt at microwaving them was a failure. But like putting on a wet bathing suit, it can be done. So we did it.

And then, we were one day away from Santiago.

We spent our last night in a bar/hotel where as usual the TV was on. At dinner, when the waiter realized we were Americans, he switched the channel. In a surreal moment, we watched the election returns for our Presidential election. We had not even remembered it was Election Day.

The next morning, the election was still on. Outside it was still raining.

One difference about the Via de la Plata route is that the path stays in the country right up to the last mile or two. We had one last look at the horreos, the distinctive architecture, the tombs covered with flowers in honor of All Souls Day, a little fog , and even a rainbow.

With typical Galician hospitality, we even had a bridge to keep our feet dry.

Just as the three towers of the Cathedral came into view, the sky cleared and the sun came out. There was another rainbow, but I wasn’t fast enough to catch it. “See,” I said to Barbara, “here comes the sun.” “Too little, too late,” she answered, as she stuffed her yellow rain poncho in the trash.

Barbara and I agree on most things but on this she is wrong. It is never too little. It is never too late. There is always hope that it will be better.

The truth is we had a fantastic walk. Everything – the heat, the rain, the mud, the churches, the Roman ruins, the flowers, and especially the people who helped us along the way, made it what it was. Of all the Caminos we have done , I think this is still my favorite, soggy feet or no soggy feet. It was wild, wet and wonderful.

Tomorrow all of us, bus pilgrims and walking pilgrims alike, will walk into Santiago and arrive in the plaza. Whether it is your first time or your tenth, the thrill never diminishes. Stay tuned. Maybe the sun will come out. There’s always hope.

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