Fresh from our blue cheese and bagpipe filled jaunt through Asturias, Simon and I powered our little Baracuda West into Castilla y Leon. This is a part of Spain, I guarantee you, I knew absolutely nothing about. What I found out was that it was a place of pilgrims covered in red dust adhered with sweat, as well as a place quite rewarding for off-the-beaten-path explorers.
We found a small inn outside the village of Hospital de Órbigo. It is quite an insignificant village, aside from a large medieval stone bridge and jousting festivals that occur every June. We were too late for the joust, so the town was quiet. Quiet sounded nice. We happily booked a cheap room for four nights and settled into the hot dusty town.
Hospital de Órbigo is a town where everyone knows everyone and there’s almost no such thing as a tourist. An old man walks down the street with a cane in one hand and his wife wrapped in the other. He nods, buenos días, and keeps shuffling down the street where he continues to greet and shake the hands of those old friends he meets. The inn has a small restaurant attached, which seems to be the local hangout. Every morning we had breakfast here, and after the first day, we no longer needed to order. The staff seemed to work at all hours of the day and had the attitude of one who works in a cafe all day. Maybe the barman doesn’t ask for our order anymore because he has grown tired of using his tongue for 15 hours every day.
Regardless, every morning he brought us both a large glass of coffee with frothy milk, a pulpy cup of fresh-squeezed orange, and a few pieces of toast with strawberry jam. An old man sat at the table next to us every day, not saying much but watching everything. Children talk to their elders in this town, which is the sign that you are in the country. Kids seem to talk to old people when there’s no one left to talk with. This is a small town, but it’s just what our weary bodies need.
Our days were filled with small adventures out into the sticks of Castilla y Leon. We headed first to Las Médulas, a site of an old Roman Gold Mine. Now, all that stands are some withering Castles from the Templars and wispy whipped cream orange peaks with old Roman mine shafts.
We stopped in a small town for coffee, a town whose name does not deserve remembering. A group of school kids sat by the fountain, giggling at the two tall white men and whispering jokes into each other’s ears. They scampered off, after realizing that we would not dig into their chicken pecking. In the table next to us, a skinny man in his 50’s sat rolling thick sticky hash into a cigarette. His hands trembled under his little joint, and he kept having to push up his round moony glasses as they fell with the sweat off his nose.
“Don’t mind those little shits,” he says, as his thin long hair sat quietly in a ponytail on his back. “They’re just being little shitheads. Kids these days are all shitheads”. He licked his joint and raised it carefully to his mouth with a shaking claw. “Little shits…” he mutters as he lights and fills his old lungs with smoke.
Castilla y Leon is filled with little off-the-beaten-path nature spots. Along with Las Médulas, we made another day trip North to a gigantic cave. It looks like a cave of melting candles, with little wispy ghosts frozen in time from the centuries of minerals dripping through the caverns.
Our guide walked us through the cave then took us deep into the cave. It feels like a cave from The Lord of the Rings, and I feel as if goblins must be living deep in the recesses of this dripping cavern. Deeper we descended in the belly of Earth until we reach a room of candelabras. Then the guide, telling us to be quiet, shut off the lights and put us into eternal darkness the likes I never experienced. Complete darkness. The only sensation tangible were the distant drips and the scurryings of little trolls deep in the holes of the gigantic cave.
The time had come or us to leave Castilla y Leon, and for us to enter into Galicia for the final stop on our trip. In a way, we ventured the Camino de Santiago in a more lazy fashion. Maybe one day, we’ll do it for real. But for now, we pulled our little barracuda through the Galician rain into Santiago de Compostela with fresh eyes and unweary legs.
Santiago de Compostela is one of the prettiest cities we’ve ventured to on this road trip. It’s steeped with high beautiful churches and filled with pale-faced pilgrims with a look of illuminating awe and serenity. They’re wet from the cold Northern rains, but their journey has ended much like ours.
We spent the night walking through the wet cobblestones, going over our trip through our heads together one last time. It all went by too quickly, as all trips do, but at least for me, it was not over. For Simon, he would be on a flight back to the Netherlands the next day, but I would be on a bus South into another unknown.
For me, I headed through the rain down to Vigo on the coast not far from Portugal. Here, I had a long walk around looking like a turtle with my huge IKEA bag that I’ve been carrying around since leaving for Georgia more than a year ago. The rain came down harder and I was restricted to the confines of a cafe to read my book a while. Soon though, I was picked up by my Couchsurfer, Ale. He had offered to host me for a night, which I was extremely grateful for.
Ale is a real Galician, who grew up just across Vigo in the coastal town of Moaña. I stuff myself into his van, wet but excited for the next leg of my journey. He greeted me with a smile and began to tell me about his province while teaching me some Galician words. He was once a professional dancer, paid to travel all around the world and perform Galicia’s traditional dance in cultural events from Morocco to Japan. He’s proud of his culture, and I was ready to hear all about it. Galicians, unlike a lot of Spaniards, are descended from the Celtic tribes that dominated most of Northern Europe.
And like all Celts, the Galicians know how to drink.
Here, the poison of choice of Licor de Cafe, made by mixing the strong clear byproduct of wine production (like Georgian Chacha) along with coffee and some sweetener. The resulting concoction, deep brown and syrupy, is poured long into a cup with a chunk of ice and drunk in ridiculous quantities. Ale bought a bottle for us to enjoy while we talked and listen to Manu Chao, while his white cat rubbed off a kilo of long hair onto my legs.
Galicia, like the Basque Country and Catalunya, has a strong culture and tradition all its own. It may not be as militant and defiant as its non-Spanish cousins, but it is equally fervent in its culture. Ale and I talked a lot about politics, and about immigration. In a translated paraphrase from one conversation, Ale told me that he can’t understand how “everyone in Galicia used to be immigrants to find work, but now they reject all immigrants coming here.” It is an idea I can understand, and out here in Moaña and Vigo I see almost no signs of immigration evident.
Later that night, Ale and I headed to a bar with a set of drums and some guitars. There, we met his friends who were already deep in their Licor de Cafe. We sat outside on the balcony, listening to the rain and playing music with each other while making sure not to let our Licor de Cafe cups get too empty. Who needs to go to a concert when you can just make your own?
My experiences in Spain have always been amazing, but being able to see the mysterious North has been a highlight of my European traveling experience throughout the years. The next day, I hopped on the bus towards Braga in Northern Portugal. This meant saying goodbye to my wonderful paradise of Spain, and hello to a new country that I have never visited. But the beautiful country and wonderful people will stay with me as a plus and will serve as a refuge when the cold of Denmark grows too unbearable in the future.