Madelyn Given took this photo at the outdoor cafe in Najerilla, on the Camino de Santiago trail.

El Camino: A Municipal Albergue

Albergues are a safe haven for the pilgrims on the trail. Although they close during the day to encourage pilgrims to move on, they open in the afternoon for guests to stay one night. An el Camino passport is needed when registering each day, and hikers don’t want to miss the necessary daily passport stamp. Pilgrims carry their own sleeping bags to use on the beds; the albergues are sparse but clean. These lodgings are spaced along the trail in certain towns or villages, and their beds fill up in the afternoon almost as soon as they open. I was concerned that I would get to an albergue, find it full, and have no other place to sleep for many more kilometers. This was one reason that I started early in the morning.

This morning I heard people moving about in the albergue when I got up and quietly went outside; I was on the trail by 5:30 am. It is the beginning of September 2014 and still very warm. Today I hiked steadily, walking through fields and vineyards without stopping for a break until noon. It was hot!

I walked into Najerilla, crossed the Rio Najerilla, and walked along the street parallel to the river until I came to the municipal albergue, which had not yet opened. There were a few other pilgrims already waiting there, all sitting on the pavement or a couple of the stone benches by the entrance. Only one hiker did I recognize: Miguel, the lone Spanish man from Barcelona. When I looked at the pilgrims, they were the typical picture of hikers after an exhausting walk: hot, tired, and very quiet.

Directly across the square was the municipal police station, and behind that the rest of the town set nestled into the side of steep pink cliffs. There are small caves in these cliffs where wine and wild mushrooms are stored.

Also built into the cliffs is the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real, which surrounds a small cave. Here in 1004, the king Garcia III was hunting birds. He sent his hawk after a bird and it went into the cave. Garcia went inside and saw a statue of the Virgin Mary, with the hawk and partridge sitting peacefully nearby. Garcia III took this as a blessing and decided to build a church here, using part of the treasure from capturing the Moors.

Inside the church, this statue has a place of honor. The original crown that was on her head had many jewels and is no longer here; the jewels were divided up and one, the Black Prince Ruby, is the stone on the front of the English Coronation Crown.

Next to the Monasterio de Santa Maria de Real is the Pantheon Real, where the tombs hold the remains of the kings from 10th to the 12th centuries. On the other side of the Municipal albergue is the Rio Najerilla. In the late afternoon I sat on the grass, under the shade of several large deciduous trees, and wrote in my journal, watching the water fowl swimming against the gentle current and the rays of sunshine gleaming on the water.

At one o’clock the manager opened the door and the pilgrims filed in. We waited in line to register and be assigned to one of the 90 beds available in this single story rectangular building; in little more than an hour, all the beds were taken. We were packed in like sardines!

I sat down on the bottom bunk, in the corner against the wall, and took it all in: the pilgrims hurrying to take a shower, going through their packs, dumping their bags, and leaving to get something to eat or drink. A man opened the screenless window near me and I hoped for a little breeze, as there was no air conditioning in any of the albergues.

I was relieved that I was feeling good after 9 straight days of hiking and my feet were holding up well since my treatment a few days ago with the woman at the tiny hotel spa. I cleaned up and was about to go outside when the manager singled me out—we sat down and had a pleasant chat. He works for two weeks, goes home to France, and then returns; he has friends in Quebec and has visited Maine.

It was so hot in the albergue that I left and went outside. Later six of us went to dinner: Marilyn from Estonia, the four Italians, Miguel from Spain, and me. There is so much activity in town in the evenings and it is enjoyable to sit in the outdoor cafes. People are so pleasant and I always felt safe. At the top of this blog post, you can see the friendly atmosphere in the photo I took that day.

I did not relish the idea of going back to the hot and crowded municipal albergue, but it was my destination that night. Around 9:30 pm, as I lay on my bed reading, I could hear a man singing outside—it was a voice that was melodious beyond belief. Soon the pilgrims began to go outside, sitting down on the pavement and forming an audience for this elderly local man, who sat on the concrete bench and performed for us. He had undivided attention and commanded an audience of young hikers from around the world as he hit every note to perfection. Without any fanfare, after about forty minutes he finished his last solo and got up, and everybody clapped and cheered. He bowed and departed. Something unexpected and pleasant brightened each day, making life in the albergues quite an experience.

(posted January 27, 2015)