Blaise Pascal, Penseé 347: “Man is but a reed, the most feeble thing in nature; but he is a thinking reed. The entire universe need not arm itself to crush him. A vapor, a drop of water suffices to kill him. But, if the universe were to crush him, man would still be more noble than that which killed him, because he knows that he dies and the advantage which the universe has over him; the universe knows nothing of this. All our dignity consists, then, in thought. By it we must elevate ourselves, and not by space and time which we cannot fill. Let us endeavor, then, to think well; this is the principle of morality.”

Thursday, July 26, 2012

The Camino de Santiago de Compostela: Albergue Life

In French, it's "auberge," and you pronounce it like this: auberge

In Spanish, it's "albergue," and you pronounce it like this: albergue

            The simple definition is “lodging,” a lodging like a hostel, I suppose, though I’ve never stayed in anything labeled a hostel, so I’m going by hearsay.

            An albergue provides you with a bed (probably in dormitory with anywhere from 4 to 50 beds) for 8 or 9 euros a night, usually a peregrino meal for about the same cost, and an opportunity to do laundry, get a drink, take a shower in the community facilities, get a nap, doctor your blisters, and get to meet people. I loved the albergues. They not only provided a haven at the end of the day, but a fairly complete test of my shaky organizational capacities as well. There is a skill to doing albergues, and it took me most of the time I was in Spain to acquire it. I am still not an expert.

            Albergues vary from Cadillac model “private” to enormous “xuntas”--municipal albergues. I liked the private ones—which simply means they were not run by the government, and so were smaller and easier to handle—for only a couple more euros. The smallest and easiest was Tio Pepe’s, in Mazarife, four people to a room, bunk beds, and downstairs, a good bar and dinner. The biggest I stayed in was the municiple albergue of Melide, with huge dormitories, about 150 beds altogether assigned by number; there were boy scouts, girl scouts, big groups from everywhere, a huge crowd of people under 30, but a couple near me in their seventies. A memorable night: the lights didn’t go out until 11.

            When you enter an albergue, there’s usually someone at a table at the entrance, waiting to take your money and stamp your pilgrim passport. I tried to get mine stamped at least twice a day, once at the albergue, and then somewhere else along the way: a restaurant, a café, a church. Everyone has the stamp. At the end of the journey, in Santiago, when you go to the peregrino office to get your official certificate for having walked the Camino, they check this passport to make sure you’ve done it. This passport was second in importance only to my U. S. passport, but I still managed to lose it shortly after getting by certificate in Santiago. I have no idea what happened to it. Here's what they look like. They fold out to several pages in length to accommodate all the stamps, and some people who love to get stamps and come from St. Jean, need two:

            Having paid and been stamped, you get a quick tour: there are the showers, men’s over there, women’s here; here’s your dorm (throw your sleeping bag out on a bed to claim it), leave your shoes outside on the rack and your hiking sticks here. The laundry’s around the corner: a sink and some clothes line or drying racks.

            Taking a shower is fun. You get a stall, which you enter in your dirty, sweat soaked hiking clothes, your change in hand, and if you are lucky, two hooks to hang it all on. If not, you make do with one. In Villafranca, I made the mistake of not emptying all my pockets before going in. All my change hit the floor, and my new point and shoot camera, which bounced once, settled comfortably in the drain, and has the flat corner to prove it. (The camera seemed to have a concussion for about an hour, and then started working again. It was a Canon Elph 520HS, about the size of a cigarette pack, and it survived all sorts of indignities. Hell of a camera: thanks, Horn Photo.) The trick is getting yourself wet without soaking both your dirty and clean clothes while you are tip-toeing around like a cripple because of your blisters. This can actually be accomplished, more or less, with a judicious application of water, which you turn off for the soaping up phase and turn on for the rinse off. This may not sound like a satisfying way to take a shower, but after 25 to 30 km., it is quite wonderful.)

           After the shower, it was either blister repair or getting a drink or both at once, depending on your state of dehydration. My favorite was a “clara,” half beer half lemonade (what the English call a “shandy,” or an Aquarius (orange or lemon; like Gatorade, but better), or a Kas (orange soda mixed with juice).

            My two favorite albergues were Pilar’s, in Rabanal, and Ave Fenix, a real hippie crash pad, in Villafranca.

(Cole Thornton with a clara in the courtyard of Albergue Pilar)

(Hiking Boots go outside the dorm)

(I counted 32 beds at Pilar's)

(Courtyard Washing Machine)

(Courtyard Drier)

(Leave your cell phone in the basket while it charges; 
I would not do this at one of the big municipal albergues.)

             I found I liked to do hand washing at the end of the day. It was relaxing, meditative, and you got to meet people who couldn’t get their socks dry either. I was reluctant to just leave my cell phone in a community basket, but finally, I just said, “What the hell,” and did it. (Again, I would not do that in a big municipal.)

            Some albergues give you dinner, others, just a bed and other facilities. Some of the best food I had on the trip was in the albergues, but in or out, everyone serving food had a peregrino menu, which gave you two “platos,” wine (blanco or tinto) and a “postre,” dessert, for 8 or 9 euros; they gave you a lot of food. The wine was surprisingly good, for next to nothing—what we would pay from $10 to $15 for, I’d guess—and dessert almost always featured torta de Santiago, a dense and delicious almond cake. One night in a orgy of carbohydrate eating, I had a huge plate of spaghetti Bolognese for plato 1 and white rice with meat sauce and meatballs for plato 2.

         The most memorable albergue dinner for me was at Ave Fenix in Villafranca.We sat at two long tables, quite crowded together, making our way through a fantastic dinner: all the potato stew you could hold, then a tossed salad, then an egg, then a hamburger patty, all tossed into the same bowl, in that order. The local wine was excellent. A little TV perched on the wall, and the European Soccer cup championship between Spain and Italy was almost ready to start. All eyes were glued on that TV. Then the picture went out. Great alarm. The senora got out the remote control and tried to get the picture back, making fancy moves, a little like a first base coach signaling to the man on third. No picture! (It didn't bother me, because when Spain beat Portugal, on our first night out (Vilar Mazarife) the whole town was up until one, including all the kids, who were playing soccer across the street in the church courtyard and yelling goal every time the ball smacked the big metal door in front of the church door. Kaboom!)

(Ave Fenix, the Hippie Crash Pad)

(Not a lot of room to maneuver; under bed storage facilities.)

(This is how you get to know people. The petite brunette on my left was from Belgium, 
and she was walking the Camino with her little black lab, 
who carried his own backpack. She assumed serving duties.)

(This potato and carrot soup was delicious. I ate three bowls.)

(Hey, what happened to the game?!)

        I have no pictures of the trickiest part of albergue life, because it took place in the dark and started at about 5:30 a.m.--getting out without waking up everyone else. Mainly, you had to get ready the night before: have everything handy, know where everything was, especially your little flashlight. Be careful not to shine it in anyone's face. Don't forget to take your pills, put your knee braces on before your pants and boots, get your watch, cell-phone, cross, clean socks, teeth brushed, and if possible, haul all of this stuff outside the dorm, into the hall, or just outside, to get it put together. Don't drop anything. Don't swing the flashlight around, don't ram into a bed with your body or your back pack. Go back. Check under the bed. With luck, you're on the road at 6:00, with half an hour to go before sunrise.

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