Wednesday, May 15, 2019

Santiago to Vilaserio

Having arrived in Santiago two days ago, after finishing our pilgrimage along the Camino Portuguese, we woke up this morning feeling rested and looking forward to our walk to Muxia and then Finisterre with great anticipation. We had hoped to walk to 'the end of the world' after completing the Camino Frances in 2016, but sadly ran out of time. For two people who feel most at home in nature, finishing a hike at the ocean seems like an appropriate ending to a pilgrimage. This time, we have a special reason for wanting to visit Muxia, which is apparently the westernmost point in Europe. Looking west across the Atlantic from there, we will be facing Cape Spear, Newfoundland, the easternmost point in North America.
In just a few short weeks we will begin another westward hike that will begin in Cape Spear. From there we will continue walking west along the world's longest recreational pathway, Canada's 24,000 km long Great Trail until we reach the Pacific Ocean, a journey we estimate will take us four years to complete. 


We were packed and ready to go by 6:00 am. After leaving our key in the door of our room, we headed out onto the street which was still cool and relatively quiet. We made our way past the still closed shops and cafes to the Cathedral, where we would find the first way marker. As we emerged into the square we were stopped short by the magic of the moment. For a few minutes, we were completely alone in the square, the expanse of cool cobblestones stretching out before us under the vast, pale blue sky. The distant moon was hanging above, and the exterior of the Cathedral was still lit from below by warm yellow lights. It felt as though time stood still, the noises of the city fading into silence. Even the pigeons were still. 

After pausing to appreciate this unexpected moment of peace and beauty, we began the climb out of Santiago. As we made our way along the streets, through sleepy suburbs and past many lovely gardens, we spotted a few other pilgrims along the way. Several of them seemed to be in quite a hurry, and for a few moments we had to fight the instinct to race them out of the city. We continued our steady climb, content to keep our own pace past mossy garden walls, the high stone walls of a convent, and open gardens and small pastures.

Eventually we walked through a small stand of Eucalyptus trees and emerged onto an open track on the side of a hill. Looking back across the lush green valley we were treated to a stunning view of the Cathedral, its iconic profile silhouetted against a sky set aglow by the rising sun. As we stood on the grassy hill, beside the ruins of an old stone cottage or outbuilding we enjoyed the curious sensation of the looking down on the city from a distance, but at the same time being able to make out individual bells in the three steeples of the Cathedral.

We waited a few minutes, enjoying the view until the sun finally crept over the horizon, setting the world on fire. That sunrise will live in my memory as one of the best in my lifetime.


We continued on in the early morning light, through neighbourhoods and a Eucalyptus forest, until we reached a small concession stand. We made a donation in exchange for two cups of coffee, and took a few moments to chat with the proprietors of the stand. Both were young ladies who had their textbooks open under the table, and told us in very clear English that they were in medical school. We wished them well, very impressed with their initiative to earn some extra cash while studying in a highly demanding program.


By late morning we had climbed up to Alto do Vento, where we stopped at a cafe for coffee and napolitanas. As we sat on the open air patio, enjoying the view out across a valley, we began to grow a little concerned about the number of other pilgrims on the trail. We had already seen quite a few pilgrims on the trail, and more than half the patio was filled with other hikers. We had assumed that this Camino was relatively untraveled, and hadn't book any accommodations along the route, even they we knew there were fewer options available than on the routes east of Santiago. As we continued to walk, we began to pay attention to the advertisements for albergues and amenities that were attached to utility poles, bus shelters, and other notice boards.

The walk was very hilly, and as noon approached the temperatures continued rise on this bright and sunny day. On one particularly steep climb through we a lovely forest we stopped at the Santa Maria Transmonte fountain, which came equipped with shaded stone benches. It was a nice break.

When we reached Ponte Maceira we stopped to look into an interesting restaurant with a view over a weir. The building might once have been a mill, but today the beautiful stone building enclosed a dark, candlelit space with medieval decorations. It had a cool stamp with a beetle which we collected before crossing the Tambre River on the picturesque stone bridge. The arched medieval bridge is the subject of a legend which suggests that god destroyed it to prevent Roman legions from pursuing the followers of Saint James. We spent some time photographing it and enjoying the peaceful view of the river and weir.


We continued through the prosperous hamlet and along the hilly path through Galicia. The Camino was a mixture of well maintained gravel paths and forest tracts, and it alternated between shady, forested sections and more exposed rural areas. Shortly after noon we arrived in the larger town of Negreira, which is where our Brierly guide suggested we should end our first stage. We stopped at a lovely cafe on the edge of town, and enjoyed a delicious and very large omelette and salad for lunch. While we were enjoying our meal we perused the guidebook, looking at our options, and ultimately decided to continue hiking for another 13 km or so to Vilaserio. Because we were making it a longer day, we decided to take the precaution of making a reservation before setting out.


As we walked through the relatively modern but charming town of Negreira we passed quite a few bars, restaurants, shops, and albergues. It was a busy town with a green strip down the center of the main road which contained several statues and art installations. At the center of town we passed an large arch, a grassy park, and an intriguing statue dedicated to emigration, and particularly all the men who have emigrated from Galicia over the years, leaving their homes to seek their fortunes in the New World. As we left the town we walked along the stone wall that encircle it for a bit, and then passed beneath them.


After leaving Negreira, the rest of the afternoon's hike was through hilly countryside. We enjoyed views over lush green valleys, dotted with red roofed houses. We climbed up into hills stripped bare by logging, only a few lone survivors still standing tall.

A bit later we climbed through hills topped with lines of wind turbines. Some of the trail was shaded, but much of it was along the shoulders of winding asphalt roads which offered little shade or protection from the hot afternoon sun. Occasionally a soft breeze ruffled the landscape, providing relief and helping us enjoy the panoramic views and fields of sunny yellow flowers.

By late afternoon we arrived at Casa Vella, the beautiful albergue where we would spend the night. The owners are very friendly and incredibly kind, and they showed us to a lovely room in the attic. After showering we did our laundry and hung it in the sunny courtyard to dry.


We then spent a wonderful few hours in the grassy courtyard, enjoying a glass of wine, working on our journals, chatting with the other pilgrims, and enjoying a swing in the hammock.


At 8 pm we joined about 20 other pilgrims at a long wooden table in the farm kitchen for a delicious communal meal of omelettes, salad, fresh bread, wine, and sweet melon for dessert. We met an American lady who completed the Camino Frances in record time, a British gentleman who also walked the Camino Frances, and a wise South African woman who had walked from Porto. There was also a mother and daughter from Hungary who were walking just from Santiago to Finisterre together on their six day holiday, but were thinking of returning in the future to walk a longer route.

As we head to bed, we are left feeling very grateful. Today was a lovely hike through beautiful countryside, and we met lots of interesting and wonderful people. Away from the crowds and cities of the last 100 km of the Caminho Portuguese, we can feel the Camino spirit returning. It feels like this is where we are meant to be, and we are looking forward to the next few days very much.

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