Cades. 22nd May
Today’s stage has seen me end up in the rather lovely village of Cades. Situated in a fold in the hills, it’s a place of solid red stone buildings that have probably been here for centuries but have a newish glow to them. The sun is belting down on the terracotta rooves, while everything around is a particularly verdant green. It’s a spread-out place, with small clumps of houses anchored together and separated from the next group by a field or two. It feels like it was planned for people who don’t really want to associate with their neighbours and is perhaps the only village on the planet that seems to have suburbs. The hostel lies off a large square of tarmac, which in keeping with the Cades tradition, puts a sizeable distance between this part of town and the bit I’ve just walked through. In the middle of the square is a small roundabout with a lethargic looking orange tree growing in its middle. There’s a bus stop opposite which looks rather forlorn and underused, as does a neighbouring building which breaks the local colour coding by being rebelliously white. By the look of the fading décor, this was until fairly recently the village bar. Given that there’s nothing here that suggests any desire for community, communal drinking was perhaps destined never to catch on.
At this exact moment, this hostel has exactly one inhabitant and you won’t believe how happy this makes me. Last night in Serdio was rough, to say the least. The main pilgrimage criteria I judge hostels on are how much space there is in a dormitory and how much washing line space is available. Serdio scored highly on the latter but was utterly abysmal on the former. There were eight bunks in a 1-2-1 formation on each side of the room covering a space the size of a badminton court. All sixteen beds were taken, and I feared the worst when sleep preparations were going ahead. I was on the top of one of the bunks that were squished together with another, and the bloke next to me appeared to be coughing into his mobile phone. The rather earnest bearded Czech man with an intense stare, that I’d met while cleaning my teeth, had the bed below and seemed to be unduly fascinated by the zip on his sleeping bag.
I’ve got no idea how much sleep I got but I’ll put it at around the length of a football match. The humidity was jungle-like in its intensity and the noise was similarly spectacular. Snoring was familiar to me (Why didn’t I pack earplugs?) but the coughing was new, as was the bastard whose watch beeped every hour - I didn’t know watches still did that. Due to the total darkness, I had absolutely no idea of the time whatsoever. I was waiting for that great staple of the Cantabrian countryside - the cockerel - to get going but it was hours of restlessness before the birds started to make themselves heard.
My contribution to the decibel count came at what turned out to be 6.15 am. Sick of the noise, I headed out to the bathroom and got enough light to see my watch dial. The problem was what happened when I got back, opening the door into a wall of human humidity. Rationalising that the local bar opened at 7 am, I thought I could get my head down for the next half an hour. How I expected to achieve this given that I couldn’t get my head down for the previous six didn’t really compute. To get back on my bunk required climbing up the inbuilt ladder at the foot of the bed, barefoot and in the dark. I had an abortive attempt before switching my take-off foot and trying again. Swinging my leg across failed magnificently so I opted instead for a sort of dive over the top bar. My shin connected with the metal and the result of 95kg of awkward man landing on a bed at roughly the same time resulted in at least one spring breaking with a noise not heard since the glory days of The Magic Roundabout. There was no chance of sleeping after that and I just wanted to get out. The noise provoked the familiar hostel Bagpuss moment - when one person wakes up, everybody else does too.
There was a bit of disgruntlement downstairs where the rucksacks were stowed. One Spanish woman clearly had the same kind of night that I had had, though possibly without the bedspring breaking. Her friend didn’t look particularly refreshed either. In my career of pilgrimage hostel staying, I’d rank it as possibly one of the worst nights - it’s definitely on the podium.*
While Serdio may not score highly on silent nights, it has to be said that it has a wonderful bar. I’d made use of it the night before for its menú del día and it was fully operational for breakfast this morning. The village looked beautiful walk under the beautiful soft pastels of early morning light before the sun put the intensity into the colours. Unfortunately, the steady convoy of pilgrims heading to breakfast looked like bleary-eyed extras from a zombie film, and nobody seemed to be feeling particularly communicative.
Most of last night’s pilgrims were heading to Santiago de Compostela. I was heading south and the split in the route happened a lot earlier than I’d remembered. While the Santiagoists headed gently downhill to the main road below, the Camino Lebaniego branches left and goes from street to path to calcified landslip in a matter of metres. It was tough on the feet and it undulates unnecessarily before finally decanting you on the same road as those heading west, only about 500m further inland. It gives you some idea of the status of this less fashionable pilgrimage. I was being religiously cleansed and sectioned off in case any dangerous inter-route familiarity took place.
I had actually done the next part of the walk - the bit that follows the Rio Nansa - before. Walking alongside a river always seems like a romantic idea but the banks of the Nansa don’t really lend themselves to easy pathways. The far side rises almost vertically for much of its length and even on the allegedly flatter side, there was recourse to some carefully constructed wooden ladders and pathways to provide some semblance of a trail. I first walked along it in January when the first 8km felt like being involved in the film Deliverance. The water was a lot higher then, meaning that a couple of path sections had to be abandoned in favour of the winter path which struck inland. What I remembered most about it was that the surfaces altered from woodland path to wet uneven stone and there were occasions when I was only a misplaced foot away from heading straight into the water. For the entire couple of hours, I saw absolutely no one. I can’t say I was looking forward to reliving it this morning.
The loneliness issue was vanquished straightaway when I saw a walker carrying a day-pack - clearly not a pilgrim then, but at least another breathing soul. There were others as well, mainly anglers staring blankly towards the river in search of salmon. The ground was more solid underfoot too. The stonier sections had improvised handrails of wood and rubber attached to the rock face. What hadn’t altered was that the walk seemed to take a sodding eternity. You turned away from the river in the hope of spending some time on a road but then you were brought back into line as a particular meander came into view. When I finally hit tarmac again at Camijanes, the next bringing point, the feet found it difficult to adjust back to the smooth after dealing with uphill and downhill rocky for the last few km.
This was one part of the walk that wasn’t improved by sunshine. In the January drizzle, the walk uphill is tricky but under an aggressive sun, it was murder. Steps were slower and I could feel the sunhat filling up uncomfortably with sweat which mixed with the sunscreen to run stingingly in the eyes. It was agony all over the body and it was totally unforgiving. I really wanted a bar to materialise but on previous brief visits to the village of Cabanzón, I’d never found one. It may have a medieval tower that they are particularly proud of, but I was quite frankly too knackered to care. I sat on a bench with the intention of not doing anything for half an hour. I was now on the edge of my personal map of regional knowledge. I could turn right and loop back home and know exactly where I was at every step. Straight ahead were a bunch of red arrows pointing into the unknown. Perhaps more worryingly, they were pointing uphill.
As you may have guessed by now, the Camino Lebaniego is not the most popular of pilgrimages. They pushed it a bit in 2017 as it was a Jubilee year. The result of that was better signposting - even so, a red arrow is less easy to spot than a yellow one. However, it didn’t seem to be attracting pilgrims in huge numbers. This nearly tripped me up at my destination as the hospitalera in Cades is summoned to the hostel by phone. I very nearly didn’t bring my phone with me but decided to take it for emergency use only. Even so, I couldn’t get any reception and sat around outside for about an hour, hoping that someone would appear and take pity on me. Thankfully, I was saved by the arrival of José who was the only pilgrim I had any serious conversation with last night in Serdio. While I was ploughing my way through dinner, he joined my table with two Japanese pilgrims in tow and tried to educate them in the ridiculous etiquette associated with drink the local cider He hadn’t heard of the Lebaniego before, and he felt inspired to take a detour after spotting the early route alternative this morning. Not only was I pleased to see another pilgrim, but I was also euphoric to see one that had phone reception. Sadly, he wasn’t staying - after last night’s ordeal he had decided to resort to his tent and was pressing on to find somewhere to camp. I barely have the energy to grab an orange from the tree on the roundabout…
As it turned out, I’m not alone in the hostel this evening. A couple of hours ago I was joined by Francisco. He’s 70, with grey hair, a meaningful gait and the look of someone who knows his way around a packet of Werther's Originals. There’s also not an ounce of fat on the bugger and I hate him for it. It wasn’t the most auspicious of first meetings; he arrived just as I was displaying a major lack in pilgrimage charity to a couple who were trying to convert the village to their way of religious thinking. I tried being polite but that failed miserably, and I soon discovered that they weren’t prepared to take “sod off”, or its Spanish equivalent for an answer either. I may not be able to say “There are...” but I can tell people to go away in varying degrees of offensiveness; I reluctantly had to go through the gears here.
As I was the only one around, I let Francisco into the hostel and we made basic (in my case, very basic) introductions. He’s a local (to the region of Cantabria, if not this particular bit) and he was very much enamoured with this particular day’s walking, particularly the bit along the Nansa. He compared it very favourably with other pilgrimage stages he’d done and as I was about to discover, he’d notched up a fair few having devoted his retirement to trying as many different routes to Santiago as he could (7 Compostelas in total to date).
He was better prepared for the Lebaniego than I was. He had a map of it for a start, which came courtesy of the tourist office in Santander (nowhere near any part of the Camino at all) and laid it out over the kitchen table. He’d worked out how hills could be avoided by following river paths. Given that he’s from Cantabria I couldn’t help wondering that if he wanted to avoid hills, he was walking in the wrong sodding place.
As well a map he has hostel phone numbers written down and has estimated times of arrival as well. We’re planning to be in different places tomorrow night – well he’d planned one thing and I was hoping to show up at another hostel at some stage during the day.
When I mentioned my planned stay in Cabañes for the following night, he looked at me sharply and asked if I’d made a reservation. Of course, I bloody hadn’t – there are 40 beds there and to the best of my knowledge, there are exactly three people doing this pilgrimage, two-thirds of whom were discussing the issue in the kitchen.
“They use it for school trips”, he replied with a sense of experience, before reaching for his phone, dialling the appropriate number and then having my worst fears confirmed,
He then asked me where I was going to spend my final night. When I replied that it was going to be the hostel next to the monastery at Santo Toribio, he shook his head slowly and then told me with an air of quiet triumph that it had closed. I was thus undertaking a pilgrimage walk which neither had a hostel at the beginning nor one at the end. Of my four planned (in the loosest sense of the word) nights away, only one - this one – was as devised.
My new friend hadn’t finished yet. The next inquiry was about how I was going to get back from Potes. I was so tempted to say “spaceship” just so the rug would stay under my feet, but I mentioned that I’d be getting the bus back to Unquera. Apparently, this wasn’t going to work either as the road was shut and no buses were running. As well as walking Caminos, I was tempted to ask him if he shot albatrosses for fun.
He was pleasant enough company though, and he turned on the charm when the hospitalera came over to cook for us. Apparently, this was one of the official duties since Cades’ bar closed, and clearly one that she was not particularly enthusiastic about. Miraculously, she produced the same meal that my aunt had cooked for me two nights before – namely steak, chips and a fried egg – but with a sense of palpable terror whenever the cooking oil started fighting back. Francisco nobly took over the cooking duties and thus saved us from food cremation and a potentially very oily egg. She stayed to eat too and over a few beers brought over in the shopping, we swapped stories about Cantabria to the point where my Spanish almost became intelligible.
*I’ve thought about it since. It’s definitely the worst.