Some decisions are so good that they make you smile whenever you remember them. Today I made the very good decision to have lunch at the Associacion Gastronomica (“Me gusta comer”) in Rionegro del Puente. If you remember nothing else from this post, make a mental note of that address and eat there soon. You’ll be smiling for a long time.
I started the day at 9:00am with a breakfast of ColaCao (instant hot chocolate) and packaged pastries. Not great, but I don’t think the bar La Trucha is normally open for breakfast so I’m grateful to the hospitalera for serving me anything at all. It seems that there was quite a party in the bar last night – the plastic chair on the roof of the car outside was a good indication.
We took a photograph together and I started on my walk. I felt little urgency, since the spacing of the albergues dictated a short walk for me today. I expected to go as far as Mombuey, 24km away. The next accommodation after Mombuey is in Asturianos, another 17km further along the Camino. And 41km feels a little too far for me, especially on a short November day.
The Camino took me first to a “hermitage” church – Ermita de Nuestra Señora de Agavanzal. Apparently, legend has it that the church was built when a hunter was led to a painting by a bird that he was trying to catch. The huge buttresses on the front are quite striking.
From here, the path took me to the hydroelectric dam that harnesses the power of the Tera river, from which many of the villages in the area derive their names. Signs warned of dangerous changes in water levels, depending on the dam’s operation, but the arrows pointed pedestrians along a beautiful, narrow, path through woods and rocky areas, covered in lichen. (Cyclists at this point follow an alternative route). It was a pleasure to be on a small footpath with soft, springy soil under foot. After following the shore of the Tera for some distance, I climbed up to the road again and crossed the dam with its spectacular views over the lake that it created. Here I started to see signs with coffee cups – but I wasn’t sure what to expect, since I had read that the albergue in the next village, Vilar de Farfón, was closed for renovations. Villar appeared to be a very depopulated and poor village. I was pleasantly surprised, then, to meet the South African owner of the albergue, sitting outside on a bench. Craig invited me in for tea and shared many of his experiences as a missionary in India and Zambia with me. Ultimately, I found it all a bit too much and needed to move on, but I was hugely impressed with his albergue, which he restored all by his own hands from a wreck that he bought eight years ago. It’s beautiful.
From Villar, I descended past oak trees whose leaves had turned orange to Rionegro del Puente. Sure enough, I crossed a bridge to enter this town on the Rio Negro, which flows into the Esla. Here, things looked more prosperous than they did in Villar. On the edge of town, I passed some large, well-built houses.
In the centre of town I came across two restaurants. Fortunately, I recognised the Associacion de Gastronomia and remembered that I’d heard it was good. I found myself very warmly welcomed and the chef, who operates from an open kitchen, came to speak to me about the pilgrim’s menu for the day. Wow.
I particularly liked the first dish – thistles with almonds and cream sauce. The thistles were something like celery but with better flavour. It was a great start to a great meal. Next I had a vegetable soup with mushrooms and croutons. Superb. Then loin of pork with apple sauce and grapes. Pork and apple is a classic, somehow out of keeping with the adventurous starter and soup – but then I realised that this was beautiful and a welcome change from the many plates of pork and chips that I have consumed over the past weeks throughout Spain. To drink with these dishes, I had a carafe of red wine. With the super cake and ice cream that followed, I had a coffee and a shot of herbal liqueur. The price for pilgrims, a stunningly cheap 10 Euros. Through the lunch it was a pleasure to be able to see the chef working. This is a guy who loves food and loves to feed his guests well.
I lingered after lunch to write my journal for the previous day. Before I realised it, the time was 4pm and I still had 10km of Camino to walk in order to reach my intended destination; the private albergue in Mombuey, which is reputed to be great. I never imagined that I’d be arriving so late – I made haste to hit the road again, but of course my progress wasn’t helped by the alcohol that I had consumed with lunch. I felt great but with the setting sun in my eyes and the booze in my veins, I’m sure my walk was a little wonky.
I ought to have called ahead to the albergue. Instead I just asked some people when I reached Mombuey. They immediately brought me to the door of the people who run the private albergue. But this was awkward. They weren’t willing to open the albergue for me – I’m not sure why. Perhaps because they weren’t expecting anyone so late and it hasn’t been heated or something. I felt sorry for embarrassing them. They told me to go to the municipal albergue, which is next door to theirs in the centre of town. So, no posh private albergue with fancy facilities for me. I went to the church square and called the number for the municipal albergue. There was no answer. I looked around and couldn’t see any sign relating to the albergue. Just as I was about to give up and walk to the hotel that I had passed on my way into town, an elderly man walked by. I asked him where the albergue was and he pointed to a building nearby. He then rang the bell of the house of the person who has the key – no answer. He explained that the man with the key is hard of hearing. After he tried the door l bell a couple more times, I told him not to worry – I’d go to the hotel. But he told me to calm down and stay out. He pushed open the front door and went to rouse the guy with the key. Amazing. I was allowed into the albergue which is a big, cold, stone building. I set up my bed and dragged the electric oil-filled radiator next to it. I had a warm shower and went out to have dinner and buy bread and pastries for my breakfast (the bakery opens on Sundays!)
All in all it has been a great day. I must get into the habit of calling ahead, though.