Day 51 (17/Nov/2017): Fontanillas de Castro to Tábara (37km)

[I’m behind with this journal. I’ll try to post two instalments this evening. It should be possible. I managed to write up most of this one last night at the Albergue in Tábara.]
I forced myself out of my warm-ish sleeping bag into the cold air of the dormitory in Fontanillas before sunrise, with the thought that an early start would just about allow me to make it to the famously hospitable albergue at Tábara. I wolfed down the sandwich that the bar had prepared for my breakfast and put on a few layers of clothing that I would remove by the afternoon, as the temperature rose from freezing to a warm 17 Celcius with no wind.
Since I couldn’t find a donation box in the converted sports hall, I wedged some money into the key ring, before depositing the keys in the letter box of Number 6, as instructed. I left the village at 7:30am, as the dustbin men were doing their rounds.
The first village that I passed through, Riego del Camino, is hardly bigger than Fontanilla. It has a bar and an albergue – both with rotten reputations. I didn’t pass them on my way through the village. Too bad. I would have liked to look through the windows of the notorious bar to see what the fuss is about. I did, however, come across a man from Dax, who was just getting up after spending the night in the bus shelter with his dog. We chatted a little about our journeys but I didn’t dawdle to take photographs – I knew that I had to keep moving and I was planning to take a break and get some breakfast in Granja de Morurela. In Granja, however, I found only the barest of bare bones bars. I asked if they served food, a tostada perhaps? Nope. Nada. The barman signalled with his chin a few plastic-wrapped products at one end of his bar. I saw a selection of long shelf-life “pastries” and “donuts” with pallid flavours and a texture that gives when it should be firm and resists when it should crumble. Guaranteed free or any nutritional value and devoid of all pleasure. The very epitome of an empty calorie.
I felt let down and less than welcome. This despite Granja’s significance for the Camino (it’s the point where the routes to Santiago divide) and despite the fact that this bar holds the keys for the albergue.
The Camino de Sanabres starts here – and that’s the route that I decided to take. It’s shorter than continuing up on the via de la Plata to Astorgia, where one can join the Camino Frances. It also takes me through the hot spring town, Ourense, and I need a long soak in a hot spring.
I consumed a coffee and a couple of sad packaged pastries at the cafe. It seemed a shame to feel so disappointed by this place, so I decided to take a look at the heritage centre behind the bar. It’s a small museum that explains the monastery at Granja and the many monasteries than used to exist along the Camino de Sanabres. It was closed.
If Granja had a saving grace it was the many signs In the village that pointed in two directions. Left for the Camino sanabres and right or straight to keep going on the via de la Plata. I liked one, in particular, which was on the wall of the village mechanic. He had fashioned a sign in the form of a blacksmith with an arrow pointing to Sanabres. Thanks buddy.
From Granja onwards, the landscape changed – The wide open fields started to fill up with my old friends, the Holm Oaks. On my map, I saw the word Finca again – the farms that are so typical of Extremadura, where pigs roam freely and enjoy holm oak acorns. I am working on an idea for a novel that will be set in this landscape; a tense and moody tale of intrigue, deceit, and betrayal in a struggling community of pig farmers. My working title for this work is: “Finca Failure. Sold Your Sty.”
Just as I was starting to feel at home in a holm oak forest, I came across a large mining project. I now understood why the Camino had a somewhat zigzag path. Once I got around the quarry and descended a short distance, I was confronted with the highlight of the day – The Rio Esla in front of me. At first I caught just a glimpse of water that I mistook for a small lake, but then the view opened up to reveal a dramatic canyon with a bridge at one end. The Esla is one of the largest tributary rivers for the Duero, which I crossed in Zamora.
I stopped for a quick chat with a man who had just arrived with a fishing rod, who told me that this was a popular spot to fish for pike. I was surprised to meet someone with such good English – Turns out he spent two years working at a YMCA in Michigan.
After crossing the bridge, the arrows pointed me over some rocks and onto a narrow path along the river. The views through the trees and reeds were simply stunning. This is one of the highlights of the Camino overall. I stopped under a tree to eat a plasticky cake that I’d bought in Granja and change my socks. I also changed from long sleeves to a t-shirt since I was starting to feel very warm.
A little climb took me over the hill and out of sight of the river. From here onwards I was following dead straight wide tracks. I noticed a few little houses with orchards and vineyards. These properties appeared to be unoccupied and I wondered if they were for recreation (they all had terraces and barbecues) or if they were designed to accommodate workers during harvest and other times when the vines needed attention.
Eventually, with my feet starting to flinch from the repeated battering against the stony surfaces of the tracks, I reached Faramontas de Tabara and stopped at the bar. The barman seemed to be engrossed in a card game with his regulars. He came to stand behind the bar infrequently. I had been hoping to get a bite to eat here but the best he could do was a beer and a packet of Doritos. More empty calories. Since I’ve become accustomed to feeding myself four or five times per day, I started to feel sorry for myself.
On the way out of the village, several villagers made sure that I found the right path – At first, a couple of old women waved and shouted “no” with an urgency that suggested that I might be about to step into the path of a speeding lorry. Moments later a man got out of his car to give me directions in German. (We started in Spanish but he was keen to demonstrated that he spoke German, “ein Bissen”).
I eventually deduced what “die kleine kisse” was in his directions (a small church – Kirche) And when I got there, another driver wound down his window to point out the right path. It felt like I I was being helped, but it’s possible that I was being run out of town.
It’s important, at this point, that I mention that it was in Faramontas de Tabara that I first noticed a new kind of structure which appears in all the villages in this region – it’s a low, long building, with no windows (but occasionally some chimneys or ventilation shafts) and an earth roof. I wondered what these hobbit houses were for. But I didn’t think to ask about it until the following day, so I’ll keep you guessing until my next update for that.
I have also been wondering why the campaniles of churches in this region have little roofs next to the bells. (I forget when I first noticed it – but it was not before Zamora, I think). The answer to this will also feature in the next update, since that is when I learnt it.
I trudged the final 7km to tabara, dreaming of the home cooked meal that I would enjoy when I reached the albergue. Fortunately, the hospitalero, Jose Almeida Rodrigues, did not disappoint. Through the window, I saw him typing at his computer, but from the moment I knocked on the door, he took care of me. He showed me where to find the dormitory and showers, sat me down with a cup of tea, dealt with the formalities (writing my details in his log book and stamping my credencial), and explained the philosophy of his albergue:
Jose is passionate about preserving the old traditions of the Camino. His albergue is “donativo,” so that pilgrims may contribute whatever they feel it merits. He provides hospitality and support to his guests from the heart. When I mentioned that I wanted to wash clothes at the sinks outside, he observed that it was cold out and took them from me to put them in the machine, later hanging them to wash in front of the radiator so that they would be dry for me. He prepares a communal dinner every evening for everyone who stays under his roof, which on this occasion was me. The menu is always soup, rice with meat and vegetables, and fruit from the garden. We . I took the opportunity to ask him about the albergue. He has been running this place for four years – hosting around 1,700 pilgrims per year. The busiest months are April, May, and September. Jose has walked many Caminos and writes books about his experiences and thoughts. At the end of the meal, he invited me to pick a message from a box to think about on my Camino – like a fortune cookie. My message, printed on a laminated card in English and Spanish advised me that “La Mano amiga, suele encontrarse siempre al final de cada abrazo,” (on the reverse: “The friendly hand will most often be found at the end of every hug” (sic). I’m not sure if the translation properly conveys the meaning of the Spanish. Even the best translations rarely do. The Italians are supposed to have a saying that conveys this: “traduttore, traditore.” The Hungarians have a similar saying too – But when I showed it to a Hungarian, she didn’t recognise it). He also gave me a leather charm with an imprint of the statue of Santiago at the church of Santa Marta de Tera, which is often used as a symbol of this Camino because (according to Jose) it is the oldest statue of Santiago in existence. It dates from the C12th.
I noticed that Jose has a stack of leather in his kitchen and a press in the dormitory for producing these charms for every pilgrim. His albergue has several posters, reminding guests about the philosophy of hospitality and the need to make appropriate donations. It seems some people take advantage of this hospitality. I have heard the same from hospitaleros at other “donativo” albergues. Some people throw less money in the donation box than it takes to cover the cost of washing sheets and heating the room. Have people become meaner? Or did this always happen?

Categories: 2017 Camino Mozarabe (Almeria to Finisterre)

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