Let’s take a moment to talk about plan A. I’ve always had an inexplicable attachment to the small village of O Cebreiro. It sits on the edge of a mountain just after you cross into the province of Galicia–a staggeringly beautiful area with Celtic routes and an ecosystem gorgeous enough to rival the Shire. The village itself is packed with history and I’ve written about several moving experiences I’ve had in the town.
Plan A involved spending the night in O Cebreiro. It was meant to be a short–albeit difficult–day of climbing that allowed us a long afternoon of rest. But it turns out, unsurprisingly, that I’m not exactly the only one so enchanted by the historic village. Weeks before we left, I started searching for beds in one of the five or six hostels in the tiny hamlet. All booked. Weeks ahead of time. In the middle of autumn at the end of the hiking season, during a pandemic. It was mind-boggling.
Once we got to Spain, the talk of the trail was that every town surrounding O Cebreiro on that particular day was booked as well, leaving pilgrims scrambling and taking taxis off the path to faraway hostels.
And so, we built plan B: still walk to O Cebreiro, but stay in the first-come-first-served public hostel. Was the public hostel open during Covid? Unsure. Would we get a bed? Also unclear. Ben and I were notoriously slow walkers. And even if we did get a bed, would we sleep well? We’d barely grown accustomed to the semi-private albergue rooms–not ones with 100-200 people in one space.
To say the least, there were many unknowns heading into day four. It’s easy to say “we’ll just roll with the punches” when you’re safe at home and well-rested. It’s much more difficult when you’re exhausted and worried about the suspiciously growing pain in your right achilles tendon.
We woke up later than expected after another restless night. The promise of the climb to O Cebreiro gave me some hope–it was one of the most beautiful stretches of the entire Camino Frances. The gray dusty roads you’ve come to know transform into soft paths of soil, moss, and tree roots. Gnarled fairy tale trees offer shade and a safe place to close your eye for a moment. Sheep, cows, fireplaces, and warm bowls of soup fill your days. As you can tell, I sufficiently romanticized our walk into Galicia.
As we started moving through the cool morning air, my tension and urge to rush through the morning finally broke. A rainbow stretched over the field as we crossed into Las Herrarias, the town right before the ascent–a good omen, I decided.
We stopped to fortify ourselves at a cafe in town to prep for the near 600-meters up the mountain. As I flipped through Booking.com one last time, a bed appeared–not in O Cebreiro, but 12 kilometers past it in another small village called Fonfria.
“Ben,” I announced as he fed a large dog who had plunked down next to our table. “I think have a new plan. Do you think you can walk 12 extra kilometers today?”
And so, plan C was born. We’d climb to O Cebreiro, though a little late in the morning for such a long walk, and carry on to a reserved bed in a private room where we’d know we’d sleep soundly. It meant no long afternoon in O Cebreiro and no rest day, but it was a bed and a shower.
“Better get moving!” Ben announced as we gathered our things and headed to the end of the village.
As we turned into the forest and off the main road, I stopped for a moment and placed my hand on a patch of ivy covering a stone that–four years earlier–had the phrase “Into the woods we have to go,” painted on it in yellow. I have a photo of my hiking partner Christina next to it in 2017. It’s odd to encounter specifics like these that make you so painfully aware of the passage of time.
The sun pitched higher in the sky as we walked up the first section of the mountain. The walk starts out on a paved road with cars zipping down the steep decline. Eventually, you’re redirected to a rocky dirt path even steeper than the road, steep enough to reach out your hand and touch the ground ahead of you.
In 2017, I did this climb in the dark of the early morning with a broken headlamp. My main source of light was Christina’s lamp and the faint purple glow through the trees and the sun finally rose. It was much easier to see where we were going this time, but also much hotter.
I can’t tell you the exact moment we met our Canadian parents, but it was somewhere between the forest and top of the mountain. Andrew and Diane (names changed) made a fantastically odd couple–Andrew as enthusiastically chatty as a small corgi and Diane with the groundedness of a horseback riding instruction. Ben and I adored them instantly.
Quick explanation of what I mean by Canadian parents. I’ve met kind Canadians on each of my Caminos. But the term originates from my first climb over the Pyrenees in 2009 when a Canadian couple helped my two friends and I through a difficult day and then proceeded to watch out for us for the rest of the trip.
I’d joked with Ben that we’d inevitably meet some parental figures along the way, from Canada or otherwise, but it had yet to happen. Just the day before, we questioned if maybe we were the Canadian parents in someone else’s story.
The difficult climb in the blazing sun would have been far worse without Andrew and Diane. And while Ben and I do fine walking together, it was nice to shake up the energy of our hike with new personalities. Diane was one of those women that I would probably call for life advice had we met back home. She’d just retired from teaching and now it was her time to explore the world with her husband. She was resolute in her opinions, clear with her advice. She asked me questions about my plans after the Camino and genuinely listened to the answers.
As we took a moment in the shade to drink some water and a can of coke, a farmer made his way down the narrow trail with a large herd of milk cows.
“Oh good god!” Diane screamed, desperately throwing herself over the wire fence to get off the trail. This tough high school teacher walking hundreds of miles across Spain was absolutely petrified of cows.
Andrew ran ahead to comfort her but we all had a bit of a laugh as she did everything she could to create a barrier between her and the docile behemoths. Eventually, the farmer–clearly unfazed by a group of screaming pilgrims–opened a gate and sent the cows into their new pasture. We comforted a shaken Diane and finished the climb in good spirits.
We reached O Cebreiro around noon and the weather was extraordinary. I’d daydreamed about this town for so many years, and it was hard to fathom actually being here. We spent the next two hours wandering through the historic church–and checking out one of the two recognized Holy Grails (yes, you read that right)–a few small shops, and finally, ate a large three-course lunch.
Andrew and Diane had originally planned to spend most of the afternoon there, but decided to walk on with us instead. We entered the rolling green hills of Galicia, passing by holly bushes and fresh pines. Their destination for the day seemed to come too soon, especially after learning that our schedules wouldn’t line up for the rest of the trip.
We parted for a few minutes–Diane and Andrew to check in at their hostel, Ben and I to run into a small grocery store–but when we came out, they were nowhere to be found. I’m certain it was just bad timing, but we hadn’t exchanged phone numbers, so after waiting for a few minutes, that was that. A brief encounter with soulmates was already over.
With the sun passing into the burning 3pm hour, reality set it. We had 10 kilometers left on tired legs and overly packed stomachs. After a day of energetic conversation, we pushed on, exhausted, wishing we had a bed back in O Cebreiro.
What I felt, however, was not the misery of fatigue of home. Instead, it was that deep, covered-in-mug exhaustion. The kind you get after spending a day walking on the beach and swimming in the ocean. You’re tired but complete.
All this being said, the final three hours of the hike were rough. Once you enter a mountain range, you have a lot of up and down to get through before the final descent, often days of it. The hill leading up to Alto de Poio–which is appropriately covered in chickens–is so steep that I’m shocked it doesn’t include stones for pulling yourself up. By the time Ben and I passed, construction workers had begun their afternoon work on redoing this notorious hill and they had to stop to let us pass.
Reaching the top was momentous, however, and we only had about five kilometers of flat-ish land to go. A man we’d chatted with earlier sat at the bar outside the local albergue drinking a tall golden beer. He made the You’re walking on?!! hand motions to which Ben responded with a We’re so tough!! motion in response. “Buen Camino!” he hollered with a laugh, raising his beer.
In the final 30 minutes of the walk, the dull ache in my achilles turned to sharp pain. I laid down on the ground for a moment and gave into walking without my boots. I had to get to pressure off my heel. I switched to my oh-so-stylish Tevas and my valiant husband carried my heavy, stinky boots for the rest of the trek.
Fonfria sat on the horizon like a gift from the gods. I’d stayed here in 2017 and remember their famous group dinner in a nearby stone hut, but we were too exhausted for a group even at this point. We gratefully checked into our room and collapsed–overheated, bright red, and aching–on our beds.
Even after such a momentous and often-painful day, I finally felt the deep sense of awe this walk gives you. As Ben got in the shower, I wrote an Instagram post with a rare selfie looking triumphant and gratified. This is the post:
What you can’t see in the picture, is the stream of water flowing from Ben’s shower, out the bathroom door, through the hotel room, OUT our hotel room, down the steps, and out the front door of the entire building. Due to the odd structure of the European shower–and a clogged drain–90 percent of Ben’s shower water escaped out the bathroom door.
“Ben!” I yelled when I looked up from my shower. “Turn off the water!”
Ten minutes later, Ben and I quickly worked alongside one of the poor owners with a bucket, mop, and stack of towels. We both incessantly apologized to one another–they felt bad about the clogged drain, we felt terrible for not noticing it in time. With a fixed drain, a dry floor, and far more drama behind us for the evening than expected, we collapsed yet again on the beds before deliriously wandering down to inquire about food.
The arduous yet fulfilling day ended with a simple dinner on our own as the rest of the hostel ate together in another building. We made the right choice to skip the group dinner. Every bone in my body questioned how we would walk again the next morning. We finished off the meal with cheese and honey made right there in the village. To this day, it’s one of the most delicious things I’ve ever eaten.
I’ve hit a turning point on day three or four on each of my Caminos. My body starts to cramp up and ache in ways that you wouldn’t ignore in any ordinary situation. But I knew we had a beautiful day ahead of us in the morning, and a much shorter one, so there was hope. Maybe there would be some sort of miracle overnight and my achilles would calm down.
A friend told me once that you can fall asleep faster by recounting the details of your day one by one, a bit like this blog does. Practicing that on the Camino is always a gift–so much had happened in the past 12 hours. By the time my memories reached the climb to O Cebreiro, I was fast asleep.