Belorado to Villafranca Montes de Oca.
Day 5 on The Camino.
We Walked In The Snow But This Day Was Still My Favorite.
We got out onto the Way fairly early, ahead of some of the others which was unusual for us, but we had heard the weather would be progressing from not-so-great to terrible throughout the day, so it seemed best to just get on with it.
We headed out from Belorado in a slight drizzle, but we were good and bundled so off we went. We managed to go about five kilometers before it started snowing, so we started looking for a cafe. We came to the first town at the same time as our three friends from Korea and we were all circling buildings and shouting back to each other that everything was closed.
This one too. Not open!
By the time we had gone another kilometer or so, the others had gotten ahead of us and must have gone a different direction into little Villambistia than we did, because we found a cafe but they weren’t in it. We were so thrilled to find something open as we badly wanted a break from the weather. Also, we hadn’t really had breakfast or even coffee, since we’d gotten going so early. We threw off our wet things and expressed our joy to the bartender at finding him. He brought us menus and coffees and we ordered up huge plates of eggs. While we ate, we watched the snow falling harder and harder outside and Kandace said she wasn’t sure she was going any further today. It was not even 10am yet. I didn’t feel like we could stop already but I kept quiet while we ordered a second round of coffees.
By the time the coffees arrived, four more of our fellow pilgrims had trickled in to escape the snow: the French couple, whose names we had finally learned (Gautier and Marion), our friend from Poland, (Emelia) and Tony. Tony asked the bartender if there was a Mass happening in the little town. Kandace and I, in our attempt to find any possible escape from the weather, had already noticed that the church was closed, but the bartender told us that they didn’t use the church in winter because there was no heat. Instead Mass was held in a little room that was just around the corner from the bar. It wasn’t happening until 11, so we all sat in the cafe visiting and watching the weather until a few minutes before Mass. The bartender let us leave all our things in the cafe while we went to Mass, which was incredibly kind as it looked like about 20 peoples’ belongings spread everywhere instead of just 6.
We walked across the street and entered a door that I would have otherwise thought led to a residence, and then down a hall and into a small room where a priest, two women and one older gentlemen were beginning Mass. It was kind of like a classroom. The six of us arriving more than doubled their number and filled up all their chairs. We came in tracking mud and drops of water, and I noticed with amusement that Marion was laying her wet gloves, socks and trousers on the heaters in the back of the room.
Once we had settled into our seats, one of the ladies began the reading. She and the other lady took turns reading, with the priest filling the spaces in between. Of course it was all in Spanish, but it didn’t matter. I knew when it was time to say the Lord’s Prayer and I knew the priest was blessing our pilgrimage. The room was warm and I was grateful for the quiet pause in our day, the gathering of saints, the reading of God’s word.
For my whole life, I have loved church gatherings, but I have experienced some pretty traumatic church events in the last year which have sort of shaken my heart with regards to Church. This handful of us in a room, from different countries, and with different mother tongues, gathering to be a part of worship that was faithfully happening with only four people in a small village, was like a sweet balm on all my church wounds. It didn’t heal them fully, but it helped me remember how much bigger the church is, how many perfectly imperfect gatherings are happening around the world. I was grateful for the gift of this moment, this sweet pause from walking in the snow and a chance to be a pilgrim at Mass.
Afterwards, Tony spoke a while to the priest while the rest of us gathered up our things and headed back to the cafe. Marion collected all her warm, dry clothes from the heaters and on the way back she told me that a lady at the cafe had told her that the heaters at the church would be on so she should take her wet things over there. I was still so warm from the service that I wasn’t even jealous of her dry socks.
It was starting to snow even harder, and we still had a long way to go to get to San Juan (18km). It wasn’t looking like we were going to make it, but I also didn’t want to stop for the day after only walking 6km. We debated for a little while about how much further to go, and about whether we were going at all, and finally Kandace said she would keep walking, but we needed a shot of whiskey first.
Our sweet bartender who had fed us coffee and breakfast, sent us to Mass and watched over our things, now poured up the shots that would finally send us on our way.
One. Two. Three.
Down the hatch. Boom. TIme to go, so off we went.
Back outside. Into the snow. And the wind.
Little bits of frozen rain pelted our faces. I think the weather was worse than the morning, but our spirits were high. We were warmer than the day it rained so hard on us because we were both wearing an extra layer on our legs. We walked quickly, and really did not stop again until we reached our destination.
Though as usual, we started out behind everyone, we eventually caught up to the rest of our group and arrived as a party of six dripping wet pilgrims at the albergue in Villafranca. It was actually a fairly fancy lobby of a hotel and restaurant where we checked in, and the albergue was out back. I was conscious of how much mud I was tracking into the lobby, and as I dug out my passport to check in, the mini puddles of water that had gathered on my backpack, ran off onto the floor. The host didn’t seem to mind, except he did joke that he wouldn’t be able to take Kandace and I because we were American. (That joke, barely funny the first time we heard it, was starting to be really tired.)
We were all dying to get off our wet things and into hot showers, but the host regaled us for a long time with the historical importance of this particular town on the route to Santiago. I wish I could remember what he said, but I was far too preoccupied with wondering when he was going to stop talking and take us to the bunkhouse. Upon Googling, I read that Villafranca Montes de Oca was the seat of the bishopric at one time and was a thriving area for monastic life in medieval days. It was later destroyed and the bishop’s seat was moved to Burgos.
Finally, he lead us down a long hall and outside through a courtyard to the albergue. We were excited to find a wood-burning stove inside, but it wasn’t burning at the moment. Tony and Gautier immediately asked if we could have the fire lit, and Kandace and I ran off to the showers to thaw out all our frozen extremities.
By the time she and I had showered and settled into the bunkroom, which consisted of dumping out everything I owned and trying to find places to dry it all, the fire in the common room was going strong. We all gathered around it, sharing a makeshift late lunch of bits and pieces we had left in our packs and sorting out what we would do for the afternoon and dinner. Though we were tired, we had only hiked 12km that day, so it was still relatively early.
There was a bar in the hotel, with an even bigger wood-burning fireplace. Kandace and I took our journals and books down to the bar, we pulled chairs away from tables and sat right in front of the fire for most of the afternoon.
Maybe it was the fire or the snow outside, but we got super sleepy so we decided we would go have a short nap before dinner. We went back up to the bunk room and crawled into our sleeping bags. (I had figured out how to keep my sleeping bag dry by keeping it in the middle of my pack after the day of really heavy rain soaked the bottom of it.) Pulling my sleeping bag up around my shoulders and closing my eyes, I was deliriously happy to be right were I was. SUCH a good feeling. I woke up after about an hour because there was a bit of commotion. It was well after 6pm and a group of hikers was just arriving. Having walked more than twice as far as us and in horrible weather, they all looked rather miserable. They didn’t really talk, just communicated with grunts and nods. I’m sure I would have done the same in their position. This night was the only time we stayed in an albergue and felt that it was really full. Kandace gracefully took the top bunk. The shelf at the front of the albergue that held boots and walking sticks was packed by the time we were heading to dinner.
The hotel was serving dinner so most of us opted for their pilgrim’s menu instead of trying to cook, as the albergue kitchen only had a microwave. Kandace and I were sat at the end of a long table with two French brothers who had walked all the way from their home in France. We had a strange exchange with them in which one revealed that he had a daughter in Texas that no longer speaks to him and could Kandace possibly look her up and greet her for him. Honestly, in retrospect, that was the least odd part of the conversation. Perhaps the strangest part of the meal was when the older brother reprimanded me for not finishing my pasta. I had ordered pasta as the vegetarian option, and it turned out to be a massive plate of rather plain pasta. It was the second course, so I’d already had a lovely soup and bread. The funny thing is that I have a habit of usually finishing my food regardless of whether or not I am still hungry, because of how much I hate wasting food. But the set pilgrim’s menus often seemed to be more food than I would usually eat, even after walking all day. Anyway, the man gave me a whole, gruffly-delivered speech about how I needed the fuel for walking the next day. He seemed disgusted with me for ignoring his unsolicited advice, which usually would have rattled me, but instead (hello wine) I found the whole exchange to be so amusing that I could hardly keep from laughing. The desserts came and as they were underwhelming, I discreetly passed mine down the table to someone else and managed to leave without being scolded a second time. The brothers were walking quite a long way each day, so we bid them farewell and didn’t expect to see them again.
After dinner, we sat by the fire and worked Kandace’s NYT crosswords, another favorite evening activity. I watched people come and go from the common area, where everyone was talking either not at all or in very hushed tones. I think a lot of folks in the group who had been walking so much longer than us were already sleeping. There was a young guy I had seen come in earlier, who was sitting and writing in his journal. A couple of girls were rearranging wet clothes to try to get them dry. I made two cups of tea and Kandace and I whispered back and forth to each other while we drank them. We both commented the next day that the new arrivals made the evening feel very serious somehow. The laughter from our morning in the bar after Mass seemed far away. We finally decided to call it a night. I switched the wet newspaper in my boots for new, dry pieces and went to bed.
I must have slept very hard because a few days later we heard that one of our friends spent that same night refusing the unwanted advances of a girl in the bunk next to him. When we realized we’d slept through the entire exchange though it occurred only a few bunks away from us, Kandace told me I was fired from the bottom bunk for missing it.