Just when things couldn’t get more fun or weird. We got off the Camino’s beaten path – okay, lost – first on purpose and later by accident. As a result, we experienced all kinds of uniquely Galician surprises.
To begin with, walking from Santiago to Finisterre feels different from the Camino to Santiago. Late starts are normal. Crowds are rare. Only a small fraction of pilgrims walk it. It felt, at times, like we were walking alone.
After the previous day’s deluge, the weather had cleared, though the skies remained overcast and clouds hung low. In no hurry, Meg and I lingered over breakfast, pored over the day’s maps, and decided to go off-route a few miles to visit an ancient Celtic dolmen. Although it sounds like a kind of pastry, a dolmen is actually a prehistoric burial site made of standing stones with a massive flat rock on top. We thought it would be an intriguing side trip, so off we went into the morning.
We were barely a mile down the empty highway when a white van with a large fish painted on it screeched to a halt beside us. The driver rolled down the window.
“El Camino!” he gestured, pointing behind him.
“Si!” we replied.
“No! El Camino es en el otro direcíon!”
I mustered up my very best Spanish.
“Queremos ver algo en este direcíon, gracias.” (We want to see something in this direction, thanks!)
“Oh! Buen Camino!” he rolled up his window and sped off.
We turned off the highway twice before guessing at the road leading to the dolmen.
It was strangely quiet. At the end of a long side road, we noticed a van packing up passengers – which helped us find the rough location of the site. I spotted it through the trees.
We snuck under some barbed wire and found the dolmen in the center of a grassy pasture. It reminded me so much of the stones I saw in Ireland. The disappointing thing about these sites is that they’re just rocks and no one really knows what they’re for. So, we just stood around with our hands on our hips saying, “Huh. That’s a big rock.” Still, I’m glad we braved a side trip and I was eager to get back on the Way.
The challenge of going off-Camino is that there are no arrows to follow. If you’re directionally challenged and use maps like Brierley’s (which are, how shall I say, creative approximations of the route), expect to feel rather disoriented if you stray from the marked path. The sky glowered as we retraced our steps back down the highway and eventually found a yellow arrow pointing us left. It was kind of a relief.
All this time, I continued thinking about the conversation Meg and I had the previous evening. I was still feeling a powerful attraction to her, but I felt more distant, not wanting to let anything show. In my heart, I was still committed to walking every step of the way with her to Finisterre. I was both ill at ease and delighted, if such a thing is possible.
At this point, we encountered the hill we’d cross almost twice before we got to the other side. We road-walked through the tiny towns of Bon Xesús and Gueima, which probably hadn’t changed a bit with the passage of time. Among pasture land and stone buildings, we reached a split in the path. I consulted the book and, although the Camino went right, Brierley’s scenic green dots went left. Meg loved a good scenic path, so we took it up the steep hill.
Immediately, we met a local who told us this wasn’t the Camino and to go back down the hill. We nodded, thanked him, and kept going. This time, perhaps, we should have heeded an angel, but we didn’t.
Chatting happily, we ascended the path among tall pines and grassy fields. Then we were lost again. The map showed a turnoff we should follow into the woods, but there was no signage and no clear path through the grass. The only landmark we could use to orient ourselves was a massive windmill ahead.
I consulted my book again.
“Do we turn here?”
“I don’t know. There are no markers.”
“I don’t see a path either.”
“Well, let’s keep going and see what we see.”
We stayed on the road and never found that turn. We kept going and got halfway to the other side of the hill. We were lost again.
“We should have seen it by now.”
“Let’s go back up and see if we missed it.”
So we walked back up the hill. After more map-consulting and conversation, it became clear that the only possible route was past the windmill. Our biggest mistake was to stand there, peering up at it for too long.
It was like a white space ship.
As we moved closer, its massive size came into scale. The little staircase at the base of the tower looked like a toy. The swooping blades sliced through the air far overhead.
Then, as we got closer still, we heard the noises. Like groaning and faint wailing.
“Is that sound from the rotors?”
“God, that is so freaky.” Meg said, spooked.
We stood there, immobile, as if under its spell. In Galicia, even machines can be haunted. Neither of us admitted it aloud, but we didn’t want to walk under that windmill. Even if that meant avoiding the correct path to our day’s destination.
We decided to backtrack when Meg turned toward me and shrieked. A briar had caught her pant leg.
We cracked up laughing.
“Let’s get out of here!”
Not certain of where we were going, we finished walking over this hill at last and ended up at the base on the other side in the middle of a dairy farm. On our left was a herd of black and white cows, curiously peering at us over the fence. I greeted them and told them how pretty they were. As we walked, they followed us – almost running to keep up.
Meg guessed that it was milking time as a huge second herd came toward us and a tiny woman on a tiny red moped rounded them up from behind. Meg and I got a spot on a stone fence and sat as they went by, waving to the woman on the moped.
We kept walking, not having seen an arrow for a mile or so, and eventually came to a tiny village where no one was around. Dead quiet. So we wandered around the backs of buildings and tried in vain to get the streets to match up with Brierley’s maps (ha ha). I was getting hungry and kind of spacey and told Meg I wanted to find some food soon.
We came to an unmarked intersection.
“Where ARE we?”
We were truly lost. Yes, we were somewhere in Galicia, Spain, nearing the ocean, but beyond that, we were not on the map. It was surreal.
Then it got surreal-er. We made our way on to a main street and found a bar. When the lady there told us how to get back to the Camino, we were grateful. When we asked about food, she told us they weren’t serving any. We both visibly slumped in disappointment.
Had we been on the Camino, we would have been served. But this was not the Camino. This was rural Galicia where people don’t eat at two in the afternoon, nor do they cater to the whims of pilgrims.
She wiped her hands on her apron and asked us, “Do you want a drink?”
We ordered an orange soda each, and she returned with a tray bearing two glasses and two of the tiniest glass bottles of Fanta Naranja I had ever seen. It was like Alice in Wonderland – all they needed were tags that read, “Drink Me.”
Moments later, the lady returned with two plates of Spanish tortilla. I had forgotten about (but couldn’t have felt more grateful for) the Spanish custom of serving tapas with any beverage. Potato and egg and onion. At least it was something.
We ordered a second orange soda each and she came out of the kitchen blaring soap-opera music with another tapa in each hand. I could swear she had an impish grin on her face as she set down the little plates, as if to say, “Let see if these pilgrims can handle the real thing.”
They looked like malformed little chocolate brownies. I was so excited!
I could not have been more mistaken. The first bite tasted like excrement, offal, and iron. Blood pudding – but without any of its usual spices. I swallowed it whole without chewing, trying not to gag. Meg was more adventurous than I.
“It’s not bad,” she said thoughtfully. But I noticed that she did not finish the three on her plate. After consuming our beverages, which didn’t take long, Meg looked at me expectantly with her hands under the table.
“Quick! Put them in this bag.” It was a clever way to not offend our host, we tossed the pudding in the trash on the way out of town.
We were off the Camino in a big way.
(To be continued…)