In the opinion of this intrepid Fordham peregrino (and I suspect that none of my fellow travelers would disagree) that the last two days have been the most taxing--- physically and emotionally--- of our journey thus far. For the entire trip, we´ve gazed in horror at the elevation map surrounding O Cebreiro, a tiny hamlet atop the mountain range that separates Leon from Galicia. It is near nothing but the sky, some cows, and a handful of similarly tiny villages which guard the mountain passes into Spain´s most isolated province. The week of anticipation of the trek to the summit made the mountains, so long in front of us, appear taller and foreboding with each passing day. As we retired Thursday night, our fate could be delayed no more.
We rose at 5am, determined to get an early start in what promised to be an especially demanding journey. After some fits and starts getting out the door, we found ourselves along side the regional highway. In a paradoxical occurrence, the shoulder of the expressway is actually the most authentic of the three possible routes into the mountains, as the highway was built along the original Camino. Perhaps the most frustrating portion of the day was nearly 15km spent following the highway and, later, its branch into a series of small towns in the valley between the peaks we intended to ascend. The anticipation built further, as field after field and farm after farm passed by. Out location grew more remote, but the terrain remained frustratingly flat: we knew an enormous assent was in store (the elevation map said so!), but grew ever more impatient with its slow arrival. All along the winding roads, there was a collective exhortation of ¨we can do it! Let´s just get it over with!¨
What hubris. Over 15km into a hot afternoon, the incline hit. We entered an oak and chestnut forest just as the ground turned sharply upward. The path was unrelenting in its rockiness, while the foliage around us provided shade, yes, but also kept the air still and hot. For nearly three kilometers the unrelenting rise continued with sharp twists and turns as we tacked back and forth across the face of the mountain. At one point, I found myself stopped with three fellow Fordhamites, greedily gulping water and Aquarius (the Spanish Gatorade substitute) when three French women in their mid-60s rounded a bend, bade us ¨hola,¨ and continued on with nary a break, chuckling to themselves (undoubtedly, about how four young-bloods needed a break while they carried on). Talk about impressive.
But as… unpleasant… the experience of the climb was, it yielded some remarkable vistas. Within the forest, we glimpsed unspoiled woodland life, occasionally spying some secluded glade that might have housed Heidi of literary fame and her family. And, as we reached the end of the first set of forest, we emerged into a brilliant, sunlit series of wild fields, grazing grounds for a few particularly intrepid cattle and their indomitable farmers. These high fields commanded extraordinary views of the valleys below. We wandered the otherworldly pastures between prairie grasses twice our height as the path looped across a last face of the mountain, through one more glen, and then, mercifully, into La Laguna.
We were received with a chorus of applause by a ground of Spanish bicyclists who had stopped in the bar to have a cerveza before continuing down across the opposite face into Triacastela. Some of our number had made it on foot, while others fought off injuries as long as was humanly possible—even Dr. Gyug found himself in need of impromptu open-foot surgery to remain in working order. Every single one of us, after a much needed shower and a caña de cerveza, collapsed in a collective heap of exhaustion for a nearly 3 hour siesta (long even by Spanish standards). We ate a fantastic menú del día, eating just enough and drinking perhaps too much in the otherwise empty dining room. Our hostel had only 20 beds, 16 of which were filled by Fordham and our tag-along doctor, Juan. Chatty from the wine and energized by the day and by the nap, we finally retired late.
Fordham Camino groups in the past have walked from Villafranca all the way through to O Cebreiro, but the unavailability of hostels had prompted our stop in La Laguna, only 2km from O Cebreiro, which I was charged to research. We rose a bit later than usual and ascended to O Cebreiro, the views of the valley all the most spectacular as we reached the mountain´s peak and bathed in the glow of the sunrise. Galicia is historically “ibero-Celtic,” and has an extraordinary Celtic influence dating back over 1500 years. The town itself seems like something out of Ireland, with lush, green foliage growing in every crevice of squat, square stone buildings, a departure from La Laguna only 2 km behind. Celtic tunes emanated from storefronts, and we found ourselves in front of the Church, which emitted a combination of Galician bagpipes and Gregorian chant. Santa Maria la Real is a square, small pre-Romanesque church which purports to be the oldest along the Camino, erected in the 900s. Legend tells of a miracle which occurred in the 14th century, where an frustrated Spanish priest was interrupted while saying Mass, during the Consecration no less, but a peasant who had walked the mountain in a blinding snowstorm to receive Communion. The priest chastised the peasant, asking why he would risk his life in the storm just to see a miracle which was purely symbolic. At that instant, the bread was transformed into flesh, dripping blood which poured down his robe and onto the altar. The remnants of the host are saved in a chalice gifted by Queen Isabella, and the chalice appears on Galicia´s flag.
The day still had hours of hiking ahead, and we were, every one of us, sort and in various states of injury. Nonetheless, we found ourselves atop a peak looking west toward the Galician plains and, ultimately, Santiago, just beyond the halfway point of our journey, filled with a sense of both great accomplishment and some trepidation for the challenges ahead. But the thousand year old O Cebreiro, despite its small size and physical and cultural isolation, maintained a certain infectious indominability, as it has for pilgrims for centuries. As each of us took for ourselves this dogged determination to persevere, the road down into the valley seemed a bit more manageable.