Steep and wet around O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail. Photograph by Madelyn Given.

El Camino: O Cebreiro

Last night I stayed high on the Cordillera Cantabrica Mountains, in a private albergue above a bar/café. It was just 2 kilometers from O Cebreiro, on the Camino de Santiago trail, which I was hiking in fall 2014. This place, Laguna de Castilla, is in the clouds most of the time, any time of the year. There were no windows in the sleeping quarters with six beds and a single bunk, but I could hear the wind whipping against the stone building and the rain beating down on the slate roof during the night.

In the early morning, Jack (from Quebec, Canada) and I quietly left the sleeping quarters, trying not to disturb five Portuguese tourists still sleeping. We walked from 5:50 am, in the dark, cold, wind, rain, and heavy fog up to O Cebreiro. There at the big albergue, many of the pilgrims were just waking up. We walked right by and didn’t stop: we had a long way to go today, and most it was up and down, high on this mountainous plateau. I felt glad to have a walking partner in that heavy fog and darkness. After we passed several hamlets, it became light; you can get a feel for this landscape from my photo at the top of this blog post. We stopped for coffee in a tiny café. It was already packed with six or seven hikers—all the place could hold. Jack and I left, and he moved on at a faster clip.

As I was high on O Cebreiro, I took in some of the history. It is most famous for Iglesia de Santa María. It was believed that the Holy Grail which Christ drank from at the Last Supper was hidden here on this high mountain hamlet in the Middle Ages. There is also a story that occurred in the same church in the 14th century. A local farmer braved a bad snow storm to attend Mass. The priest told the man it was silly to have come so far in such a bad storm for a bit of bread and wine. At that moment the bread turned into flesh and the wine in the Holy Grail turned into blood. The church had a statue of the Virgin Mary and at the same time it is said the head tilted to get a better look at the miracle. The remains of the flesh and blood are held in a silver reliquary donated by Queen Isabella and are still in this church.

Later in history at O Cebreiro, Sir John Moore had a terrible time with his army. In a blizzard, hundreds of solders froze to death, his army mutinied, and in protest, the men threw a chest of gold over a cliff. Sir John Moore never made it back to England; he was shot by the French as he was embarking for England. The stories, sights, and history along the el Camino keep me motivated as I walk each day.

I walked all morning through passes high above the valleys. The path often went though barnyards and along stone walls and open spaces. I walked up and down on the high mountain to Fonfriá. It was a steady downhill the rest of my walk. I descended to the tiny hamlet of Biduela, then to Filloval, and down to Pasentes. Here I finally had to drop my pack and rest a few minutes from exhaustion. I continued on to the albergue, which was in the middle of a field as I entered Triacastela.

I came in by myself and was pleasantly surprised that they had help to do our laundry. I went to the laundry room in the basement, gave one of the attendants seven euros, and she told me to return in a couple of hours. When I returned my clothes were clean, folded, and neatly placed in a basket waiting for pick-up. Daily hiking saps so much energy that to have my laundry done was an enormous boost to my moral. Especially a day like today, as I was cold and every part of my body ached. The last several days have been quite an adventure. As I was high on the mountain, just before O Cebreiro, I passed another border: now I am in Galicia, the last leg to Santiago, and there will be no more high mountains.

(posted May 19, 2015)