I bowl into today’s destination, Estella, at about 12.30pm in a truly foul mood and I can’t really give you a good reason why. I felt it almost immediately after I had left the pleasant surroundings of the bar in Lorca and I decided to keep talking to a minimum. “Buen Caminos” to my fellow pilgrims have been uttered through much gritted teeth. I was hungry before I got to the bar and now it seems that I’m well and truly fed up.
The large municipal hostel here doesn’t open until 1pm and I’m too impatient to hang about waiting. Estella has other options though, so I decide to head across the town in search for one of the parish-run affairs. I’m loitering outside an unlikely looking doorway on the ground floor of an apartment block, which is apparently the way in, when a man appears in the entrance.
“Well, hello there. Come on in!”
The voice is American and full of natural warmth. There’s nothing this British bloke hates more when he is in a bad mood than to be treated with total kindness by strangers. When I cross the threshold, I’m confronted with a double act. They are Michael and Barbara, and they seem to be completely overcome by the sheer joy of life. They have just received a food order and are putting things away with such an air of good humour and laughter that it would make Mary Poppins vomit.
“We have so much yo-gort Michael. We’ll be eating it all night!”
“We sure will dear”, replied Michael, following this up with a hefty chuckle.
I hate to break up this wholesomeness; actually, that’s not true: I revel in it, and Michael leaves his shelf-stacking behind to sign me in and to show me into a room with nine bunks aligned along the perimeter. It looks clean and pleasant but given the nature of the hospitaleros, I can’t see how it could be anything else. Every bed has probably been sprinkled with fairy dust.
After the traditional washing rituals, I lie down on my bed for a few minutes but the sound of undiluted happiness from the other side of the doorway is just too much to bear, and I have to go out and find some pigeons to kick. As I’m leaving, Barbara informs me that the cook has just left and that she will be taking on the food duties tonight. There’s a sheet of paper on the back of the door if I want to sign up for the evening meal and “we can eat together as a big family.” If she even mentions the words “Apple Pie”, there’s going to be trouble. Today is the day the “say yes” policy gets binned. I’m straight out of the door and on a mission to find nosebag opportunities elsewhere. I am grumpy, proud and I refuse to be killed with kindness.
Estella comes highly regarded as a stopover because of its interesting history, but in my irritated state, I can’t see why. It’s a medium sized town with a river going through the middle of it. Apparently, the must-see is the church of San Pedro de la Rúa which is where former kings of Navarre swore allegiance. It dates from the twelfth century and it’s quite definitely closed when I get there. There’s also a monastery and an old pilgrimage bridge, the Puente Picudo, with steps going across the top of it but to my cantankerous eyes at least, it has sod all else going for it. I find a café in the triangular Plaza Santiago and order a beer to be miserable with.
I’m forced to go back to the Disneyworld refugio as it’s getting breezy and I need the extra layer of the rugby jersey. To my absolute horror, it has now filled up with other pilgrims and cheeriness has reached epidemic proportions. Thankfully, I’ve been inoculated. The pilgrims who have signed in after me have formed a plan to cook dinner for everyone and spare Barbara the aggravation. An Argentinian couple and a Spanish pairing have initiated this scheme and are waxing enthusiastically about what they are going to put together. I hear them as I pass through the kitchen area to my dormitory. There are few things that can have me legging it in search of a Pizza Hut, but having dinner with an Anglo-Hispanic version of The Waltons is fast becoming a strong contender.
As it turns out, everyone else – about 25 in total – has signed up to the evening meal and the notable exception is the unfriendly British git. Not only am I being exposed for the grouchy individual I am, I feel like I’m being press-ganged into trying to enjoy myself. I reluctantly add my name to the bottom of the eating list with all the enthusiasm of somebody signing their own death warrant. The only advantage I can see to all of this is that I don’t have to wander round a rather cold and windy Estella in search of grub.
As we are rearranging the furniture and placing tables and benches into a cramped C-shape to get everyone accommodated, I get talking to Michael and Barbara. They come every year to Estella for two weeks to run the hostel before handing over to another group of volunteers. They have done the Camino and they see it as their way of giving something back. There are several places along the way that are run along similar lines and I can see how it makes some kind of sense. I start to feel really guilty about my own attitude towards them earlier in the day. They are giving up their time to make pilgrims feel welcome (even the anti-social ones) and extend a tradition that has gone on for centuries. It works for them. They are actually leaving tomorrow and are obviously very sad to go.
My frostiness continues to melt as a very pleasing evening unfolds. The food is excellent and we are treated to vegetable soup followed by meatballs and salad. Predictably, there’s yoghurt for dessert, as there are at least three shelves of the stuff in one of the fridges. In Larrasoaña, I was one of the youngest people there but here I’m at the upper range. I find myself sitting with two American couples – one of whom is delightfully called Janet and John. The wine flows easily and endlessly, and my mood switches around completely, to such an extent that it becomes one of the happiest evenings I’ve ever spent. There is a lot of laughter and freewheeling good will with truly lovely people. There are no egos and no-one talking about personal problems or feet. And not once does anyone ask why they are doing the Camino. It’s my first experience of staying in a donativo – a pilgrimage hostel where you decide how much to pay for your stay: the money being ploughed back into food and upkeep. I retire to bed at 9.30pm a happy pilgrim and somehow feel that I’ve learned a lesson of sorts today.
Excerpt from Rudy Noriega´s book “Yellow Arrow Fever – The Grumpy Pilgrim’s Guide to Santiago.” Visit Rudy at his website Gullible´s Travels.
Check out my e-book, A Wild Woman’s Guide to the Camino de Santiago for practical advice on preparing to walk the Camino de Santiago including snippets from my journey and stories from Camino pilgrims. Click the link to download your copy.