Barcelinhos to Tamel S. Pedro Fin, Portugal
Our first few minutes of hiking took us across the medieval bridge, past the old mill, up the hill, and into the city of Barcelos, Portugal which is a combination of ancient-touristy and modern-real. I noticed while sitting at the cafe there were many twenty-somethings wearing suits and carrying thick books and briefcases. The stately brick buildings they moved in and out of were dappled in shade and sat in a sea of grass. I figured it was a university and attempted to confirm my suspicion by asking the waitress, “Is that a university?”
Her brown eyes darted around as she searched for the proper English word. She offered a sentence in Portuguese and read my blank stare. Her brain looked again for the word that would describe to the illiterate American what he was looking at. But her internal dictionary was blank. The best she could do was reference American television, she pointed toward the buildings and said slowly, “Law and Order”.
It was a courthouse and those polished young people were a combination of lawyers and criminals. Or if it’s like America, some were both.
After Barcelos the trail was mostly country lanes and dirt paths surrounded by fields full of corn, immature grapes and huge bulls with wickedly sharp horns. This stretch of the Camino linked small town cafes together like charms on a bracelet. Some were not towns really, just two roads that crossed. At one of those crossroads we found a six table cafe that served as a general store, cafe and bakery. That day it appeared to be staffed by only one young woman who baked the bread, made the sandwiches, cleaned the tables, answered the phone and collected the Euros. Despite having to deal with everyone that walked in and every issue that popped up, she smiled easily and often. It was muggy in there and I repeatedly wiped sweat off my face but it was better than sitting in the midday sun.
Our final push took us down a few miles of asphalt and past a dusty grey dog sitting in a slimy puddle at the edge of the road. As soon as we past he pulled himself from the cool water and started following Sue. He had no interest in me, but followed Sue like an apostle, staying just out of arms reach. When we turned off the main road and started heading out of town he continued to follow. That’s when it started to look like he was going all the way to Santiago. Sue stopped and told him he was making a mistake and he should go home, if he had one. He respectfully listened but ignored the fine points, when she turned and started walking he followed. Then about a half mile later when the shade disappeared and the sun began to bake us all he decided it was time to head back to the puddle. Sue was relieved but also a little sad. Her little admirer was a four legged dust ball, but if you looked beyond the dirt and tangles, he was pretty cute.
We ended our day on the top of a hill at the albergue in Tamel S. Pedro Fin. It was an updated stone building, hospital clean and adjacent to an old church that was much smaller than the albergue. A few yards away was a bar that served dinner at seven. Nothing else was around, just farm fields. At seven we were herded across the street to the restaurant. It felt good to be among a flock again. We left Lisbon eighteen days ago and this dinner was the first time we were surrounded by pilgrims walking to Santiago. On the Camino Frances most nights were like this and during the day it was common to see a herd of pilgrims climbing the hill in front of you or sitting at the next table. Traveling in a bubble of hikers can be a pain, like when waiting for a shower. But it also provides a sense of camaraderie which makes a group meal a family reunion, even if you’re meeting for the first time.
The waiter sat us at an L-shape set of tables on the terrace where the setting sun was partially blocked by the building. There were probably thirty to forty people in our flock. In such situations Sue and I try not to sit together. I sat between a Spanish man and Irish woman and within toasting range were people from Croatia, Portugal, Italy, Germany… English was the main language spoken but throughout the meal you could hear pockets of conversation in German, Spanish, Portuguese and other languages. If someone became stuck there was always someone else who could inject the missing word or proper grammar to clarify the thought. That’s another time it’s nice be part of a flock.
Ages ranged from teens to 60’s and neither birthdate nor country of origin seemed to matter. Young spoke to old, Europeans spoke to Americans and believers spoke to non-believers. One of the amazing things to me is how strangers from different cultures can come together so quickly and laugh and joke so easily. It becomes evident that a common language is nice but not necessary for communication. A head tilt, roll of eyes, grunt or just a look can communicate a thought and start a wave of laughter.
I didn’t know it at the time but some of my table mates would become hiking mates. We would spend the next four days together hiking through the heat and over the hills, share meals, bunk rooms and laughs, and become friends.