Day 2 – The Journey Begins
Journey: Sarria – Portomarin
And so it began. At 9.30am our merry group gathered in the hotel reception with an air of nervous excitement, checking we had all we needed for the day ahead and trying to slip any extra items back in the suitcase before we headed off. There was also a bit of frantic searching for the stones we had brought from home; it is a tradition that pilgrims carry a stone with them on the start of their Camino, laying them down early on as a symbol of letting go of worries, concerns and issues that are weighing them down. As our Camino would only last five days, we would be leaving our stones along the route of the first day.
Pilgrims also carry with them a ‘Credential’ – a passport in which they have to collect at least two stamps per day from stops en route and then present to the office in Santiago. The passport acts as proof that the required distance has been travelled in order to receive the ‘Compostela’ (certificate) – to qualify for the certificate at least 100km must have been covered by those completing the Camino on foot. Hotels can provide stamps, so checkout provided a good opportunity to get the stamp collecting started.
Toothbrushes safely stowed in suitcases, stones (mostly) located, and after a briefing from our intrepid leader Andrew, off we went. Within 100 yards, we met steps, and this set the tone for the rest of the day. Sarria sits within a valley, so we had to climb, and over the course of the day would ascend 350 metres.
Shortly after leaving we reached the first place that stones could be laid; a stone cross on the route out of the town. A majority of the group left their stones there and Rev. Julia said a prayer. Having spent this time trying to find where I had put the stone in my backpack, I decided to keep hold of mine for later in the day.
Off we set again, making our way through beautiful countryside, next to babbling brooks and over a picturesque stone bridge. Up we continued to climb, and whilst we were fortunate not to be walking in searing heat, it was a very muggy day. After about 3.5km we reached our first rest stop. The cafe also had a little shop where we could purchase a plethora of items featuring the distinctive scallop shell, symbol of St James and symbolic of the Camino. Pilgrims often attach a scallop shell to their backpack to show that they are on the pilgrimage, and so a number of us purchased shells and set about attaching them to our bags.
Not wishing to sit still for too long and seize up, we set off again and continued upwards. This next section was really quite difficult because of the heat and the hills – it was also much longer than the first section of the day, at about 9km. Being immediately before lunch as well, I know in my case at least, energy levels were flagging. At last the lunch stop came into sight, we managed to find a table outside, and we caught our breath as our elected representatives went in to order. They returned with rather unexpected news. The cafe had run out of food. This led to comparisons to two biblical passages; the wise and foolish bridesmaids, and the feeding of the 5000. The wise bridesmaids of our group had gone out in the morning to pick up bread and other items for sandwiches. The foolish bridesmaids…hadn’t. Cue the purchasing of any drinks and snacks the cafe did have and the sharing of food to ensure all had enough. I’m not going to lie, the announcement of no food was quite a low moment given the hills and the heat, and as we sat there the owner shut the door and stopped any more people coming in. But the feeding of the 5000 epitomised what I found on this first day to be central to pilgrimage – companionship.
Even those who are travelling the Camino alone are not alone. It is another Camino tradition to greet other pilgrims you meet or pass with ‘Buen Camino’ – literally ‘good Camino’ or (even more literally) ‘good the way’. There is genuine and heartfelt good feeling among all pilgrims, and a unity that surpasses any division of race or nationality or religion. Not all pilgrims take on the Camino for the same reason, not all for religious or spiritual reasons, but there is a sense that you all look out for each other because, to quote a teen movie, we are all in this together.
Leaving the lunch stop in much higher spirits and with much higher energy levels, we continued on, and part of this section took us through the shade of a wooded area, which was a welcome relief.
Crosses of all types are dotted along the Camino; some more permanent fixtures on the landscape and others more impromptu. At one crossroad there was a wooden cross on which people had placed their stones, and there was a second of these not long after the lunch stop. I chose to leave my stone at the second of these, carefully trying to balance the stone on the cross’s horizontal bar without making any others fall off.
After what felt like a short time we stopped for ‘afternoon tea’. We had broken the back of the distance in the morning and had a good rest for tea and coffee. Moving on again, tiring slightly but in good spirits, the weather broke and we engaged in a game of ‘Rain mac on and off’. Having finally decided myself not to bother anymore, we of course then found ourselves in a downpour. Typical. Yet it was actually quite a welcome relief and much more comfortable to walk in. Plus it tested the quick-dry quality of our clothing, which passed with flying colours. Every cloud and all that…
By the time the downpour had ended, we had reached a point where we could see our destination of Portomarin. It was something like looking down on the promised land, if that doesn’t sound too dramatic. We duly made our way down and eventually came to the bridge leading across the reservoir to the town. It was beautiful. Feeling quite proud and relieved for having almost completed the longest walk I had ever done, and very much looking forward to taking off my walking boots, we made our way across the bridge.
What greeted us at the other side was almost comical. Steps. Steep steps.
There’s something a bit profound about that; the mirroring and blurring of the beginning and end. Any journey is marked by a merging of endings and beginnings. Even as we started the Camino, we left things behind; when we end the Camino, what will begin?
I probably need to retitle this blog post…