A long post about a thoroughly nice day.
The pilgrims are still leaving Ave Fenix. I have just passed lines of them on my way from Das Animas to Villafranca del Bierzo along the river road. This refugio is special to me. It was where I finished my pilgrimage in 1999 to fulfil a promise I should not have made. It was also the place from which I walked during Easter week 2000 to fulfil the promise I had made to myself.
Manu greets me at the door like an old friend. We actually have met before but I doubt he remembers me. That doesn’t deter him and before long I have a coffee in my hands. I comment on the changes: lots of new building gone on since I was here last. Manu tells me that he is “el brazo de los sueños de Jesus Jato” (I am the arm of the desires of Jesus – it sounds better in English.) He points to the new toilets, the new bunkhouse overflow. “He say: Manu… done!” I notice that this is Manu’s way of speaking: without sentences and actually virtually without verbs! He tells me he was a fisherman in Barcelona and that he has been there at Ave Fenix 14 years. He hugs me so hard that I fear for my poor cracked ribs!
Maria disappears with the copy of the book I have brought for Jesus Jato (Ave Fenix and especially the Iglesia de Santiago in Villafranca are mentioned in some detail in Pilgrimage to Heresy.) She tells me that Jesus has just taken the backpacks up to O Cebrero and she calls him to tell him I am here. “He will be here in an hour,” she tells me. I sit down to wait.
By now the barriers are down, it is 12 o’clock, and there is a line up at the door. Ave Fenix is famous. The lady who is inspecting Credentiales suddenly turns from her work and says: “Are you Tracy Saunders?” I admit that yes, indeed I am.
“I´m Louisa,” she says, “I loved your book!”and I realise that this is the person with whom I have exchanged more than one e-mail. We sit down to talk a while, Louisa’s shift being over for the time being. She is volunteering to help out the Ave Fenix crew and has been walking herself.
Jesus Jato arrives and all is business. A cash box which was thought to contain 70 euros appears to be empty. No-one knows anything about it: it would seem that someone pretending to be a pilgrim has helped him or herself. I find this very sad. JJ is not happy, but after a coffee we begin to talk. I am delighted to find that he is in full agreement with me that not only is St. James not buried in Compostela, but that there is “no doubt”, he says, that the remains are those of Priscillian. This is a man who knows the history of the Compostela pilgrimage inside and out.
I go into the church. This is the waystage where, by papal dispensation in the 13th century, pilgrims who were too ill to continue to Compostela could enter by the Puerto del Perdon and receive all the same indulgences they would have had they finished their journey at the burial site of the apostle. I have yet to see this door open! The very helpful lady in the church tells me that it is only opened on December 31st, Holy Year or no. It seems I am a lucky girl to have made it all the way 3 times…
On to Manjarin to see if I can talk with Tomas the “Last Templar”. Once again he is not there, but Angel is and he remembers me from last year. I ask where Tomas has gone this time. He looks as angelic as his name and says: “El es un espiritu. Está in todos partes.” (Trans: he’s a spirit. He is everywhere.)
I stay and chat for a while. Lots of curious pilgrims and “lots of tourists” Angel tells me. No-one seems to be up for lunch. So then I continue on to Foncebadon and Enrique Notario at the Gaia restaurant. Enrique was the first to set out to revitalise this once abandoned village (it was derelict when I passed through 11 years ago). He believes that it is the Old Way, the way of the Celts and the Meigas which is important: The Via Lactea. I have some great seafood soup, leave a pile of bookmarks, and am off again, following the Camino de Santiago. I am really enjoying myself. I could do this forever.
After a quick stop off at the Municipal Albergue in Rabanal (I’m never sure of my reception at the Confraternity one – me being a happy heretic ‘n all), I decide on one more refugio before I have to make a concerted effort to get to Moratinos sometime this century. I decide on Puente de Orbigo and the old albergue with the pretty courtyard and the wall painting. I am introduced to Pascual “como la leche”. Pascual decides that I am a genuine celebrity and then introduces me to everyone else. He is bubbling over with energy and it’s infectious. I meet with Juan who with two others is enjoying something very garlicky around the tiny table. Juan, I learn, is on his sixteenth Camino! He has a cartoon book of the life of St. James and he presents me with it. This is so typical of the way I have been received on this trip. People’s generosity just humbles me and after the reception I have had here, I probably need a bit of humbling.
I drive round and round Leon looking for the road to Sahagun. I find the atmosphere a bit threatening and realise that I felt exactly the same the last two times I have been here. I can’t quite put my finger on why. The centre of Leon is very atmospheric and of course the cathedral and Gaudi’s bishop’s palace are simply stunning. Maybe I am having one of my “past lives” flashbacks!!!
Finally, through Sahagun and to The Peaceable Kingdom. Although we have never met, I feel as though I know Rebekah from her posts on the Camino de Santiago forum and from the few times I have visited her blog. She warns me that her two greyhounds – strays that very cleverly found their way to her and her husband, Patrick – are still very frightened of strangers. I make a point not to make eye contact (dogs don’t like this when they don’t know you: they see it as a challenge).
The Peaceable Kingdom lives up to its name. Rebekah asks me if I like burritos (you betcha); Patrick is reading the paper and comments that he is worried about Lulu one of the greyhounds as she has remained very still. Paddy loves his animals. Kim, who is a long-term guest is pottering and later appears to show me to “my room”.
Wow! What a beautiful house this is. So much love has gone into making it a true pilgrim refuge. Over my bed (double – with sheets and everything!) is a woodcut which reminds me so much of my Matthew Weir ones at home that I do a double take. They are not Weir’s work but that of an American artist, Elizabeth something I think. The theme is of St. Francis and the animals and I am happy to sleep beneath its peace.
Burritos and salad appear under the mosquito net in the garden. The other greyhound joins us (and Tim the Love Dog who mistakes me for a dog lover and I do nothing to set him straight). Some good wine is drunk and the conversation is equally good. Kim asks me lots of questions about myself. Oddly, I am not overly comfortable with talking about me in a situation like this. I can do it for the press but this seems an imposition: what I mean is me talking about myself in this place where everything is equal. Paddy tells me that Rebekah is working on a book about returning home after the Camino. I mention that Sue is doing something similar; I ask Rebekah – who once had a career as a journalist; so did Patrick – if she would like to tell me about it, but she says not yet. “It’s in my head.” I can understand this.
“The lion shall lie down with the lamb – and a little child shall lead them.” Rebekah and I stay up late talking and I find she is a fellow admirer of CS Lewis. We share the experience of knocking on the back of wardrobes when young. Rebekah, it seems, has found her Narnia. I am yet to recognise mine.
And so to bed.
What a delightful day!