Zen top-up: Ponferrada to Villafranca

The next morning I went downstairs for my first café con leche and whatever baked goods came with it. There was only one other person there, clearly of a pilgrim persuasion, so naturally a conversation ensued. The Breakfast Man, as I would call him, was from the USA and was having a gentle breakfast while his wife slept off the jetlag upstairs. It was nice to start the day with a pilgrim chat even before I had set foot on the camino, so I lingered a bit and had the usual coffee, croissant and finally! an Aquarius! Not for breakfast, though – I pour into my small water bag, which fits perfectly into my skirt pocket, for restorative sips along the way. When Breakfast Man went up to wake his wife, immediately pilgrim named Sleeping Beauty, I set off to start my walk.

I bypassed the 10 kms of tarmac/asphalt by getting a taxi to the Camponaraya bodegas, where the trail passes over the motorway and winds into the vineyards. And what a lovely day for it, not to hot, not too cold, not too windy, not too stifling, not too overcast and no rain forecast. A proper Goldilocks day – everything was just right.

I walked happily, breathing in the fresh air with a hint of wild fennel and making little micro adjustments; tightening a strap here, lowering a pole there, considering removing a layer, when my phone pinged. I know, I know, I should have turned the thing off and just Been in the Moment, but … when I checked it, because I did, I had a message on Instagram. I don’t normally get messages there, people who know me know I don’t check it regularly unless I am out walking and open it to add photos.

But when I looked, it was a message from my camiga Nicole from the year before! I thought I had lost her after León – turns out she was only 10 km ahead of me – but found her again in Santiago, so we had our last night in town together. She had seen my photo, read that I was going to Villafranca, and incredibly she had left Villafranca that morning – she was just ahead of me again! What were the chances?? She had been walking with her brother, but he was returning to town that evening to get the bus home, while she was carrying on to Finisterre. Excited messages flew back and forth, and they decided to stop at the fabulous Rock’n Roll Pizza in La Portela de Valcarce, have dinner there and then get back into town.

I carried on with even happier steps knowing I would soon see Nicole again. It occurred to me that I should buy her a small present as a memory of this stroke of luck or amazing camino magic, and I knew just the thing: About a kilometre up ahead, in a small copse of trees, there is usually a few seats, a donativo stand and a man carving gorgeous wooden shells! It would be perfect, I thought, but when I got to the oasis … no donativo stand and no wood carving man. Oh well, I had had more luck than I had hoped for already today. Asking for more would be greedy.

After a short lunch stop in Cacabelos and a gorgeous bimble through the vineyards I arrived at dear Albergue Leo, where the lovely Maria had saved me a bed. I was quick to get showered, changed and get out to eagerly anticipate Nicole’s return to town. Maria had told me there was to be a wine festival that evening in the street, which sounded like fun, but all these things happen late in the evening in Spain, after albergue lights-out. Oh well, you can’t have everything and today was good enough as it was. In the meantime I went to the square with some of the girls in my room, and was soon chatting to a large group of young pilgrims who had met on the way. It was nice to feel part of the fellowship of the road again – even when the rain suddenly tipped over the little town and everyone but the peregrinos sensibly went indoors!

Finally Nicole and her brother arrived after a long afternoon at the Rock’n Roll Pizza, and it was so good and utterly amazing to see her smiling face again! I felt sorry for her brother who had to leave, and so very grateful that I still had the walk and hopefully Santiago ahead of me. We had a drink and a catch-up chat and agreed to meet the next day, and I had to go back to my albergue. I was a bit disappointed in the supposed wine festival, because I had expected the whole town to be buzzing and it certainly wasn’t.

But then I came down the steps from the square into Rua Agua … and the street was heaving with people! There was indeed a wine festival, but a very local one, just in that particular street. At the far end there was a stall where you would buy a small glazed terracotta cup with a string through the handle, so you could hang it around your neck. After purchasing the cup, the wine refills were free!, hence you didn’t want to lose or drop your drinking vessel. I had missed the stall at the other end and it was nigh on impossible to get back there, but a lovely lady offered me hers and said she had several at home. Isn’t that the best camino gift? I have to admit it looked odd, all these adults with their cups on strings and ribbons around their necks, but I happily hung mine around my neck and had a drink.

The atmosphere in that narrow little street was incredible. Little old ladies and little old men in flat caps were milling around offering wine from large plastic jugs and trays of little tapas treats, there was a band with drums and bagpipes and general merriment. An Irish pilgrim did a very passable River Dance to a Spanish bagpipe tune, which seemed appropriate as the crowds drifted slowly, drinking and eating and singing and dancing, towards the river at the other end of the street.

In the middle of the throng I even thought I saw a familiar face, though it took a while before I could place it – it was the wood carving man! Again – what were the chances?? I told him I was walking with my wooden shell on my pack and that I had been looking for him earlier that day to buy another one. We had been following each other on Instagram for years so it was nice to chat to him again. As the crowd slowly arrived at the albergue, I stayed near the doorway to make sure I didn’t get locked out. Maria and her mother were dancing along with their neighbours, young and old, and I couldn’t imagine a better end to the day. I doubt any of the pilgrims in the street facing rooms upstairs got a wink of sleep though, I noticed some of them gave up and came downstairs again to join us.

Oh and of course I kept the cup on a glittery gold ribbon and brought it home, so now I have two camino treasures from Villafranca.

All in all a wonderful day – and night – of camino magical surprises. Into the sleeping bag I went with a big smile.

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