Bruno’s burned-out, gone back to Italy until April. He left us with a big pan of tiramisu and a set of keys to his albergue. And every pilgrim who comes down the pike.
Winter’s usually pretty dead on the Camino de Santiago. We don’t mind being the only place open to pilgrims in 20 kilometers, because almost no one walks this part of the path this time of year. In February and early March, if you’re walking westward, the wind tends to blow freezing rain right into your face. Even in June, the tourist-pilgrims complain and skip past this bit because “there’s nothing to look at out here.” There’s even less to look at in February.When you can see past the ice on your eyelashes.
I exaggerate. Only every other day is that bad. We see plenty of blue sky, too. But you don’t see a lot of sky when you’re watching for ice underfoot. It’s winter on the prairie. Most people have good sense enough to stay home by the fire.
Except pilgrims. This winter there are still tons of the buggers out there. Most of the restaurants and pilgrim shelters are closed for the season. The ones that are open are often unheated. That means the walk between stops is much longer than in summer, even as the daylight hours are shorter. There are very few fellow pilgrims to keep you company. Winter pilgrims are a serious lot, a tough breed. They used to be few and far between.
But that's changing. In January, 1,217 people were awarded “Compostela” certificates at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela, a new record for the month. Today, eleven pilgrims got theirs. Eleven. We used to get that many pilgrims in a winter month!
We get pilgrims every day now. Partly because we’re the only open place between Calzadilla de la Cueza and Sahagun. Partly because the winter pilgrimage is getting better organized. Lourdes Lluch, a hero of the modern-day camino, is responsible.
Lourdes is the Ur-Hospitalera, the pioneer. She opened the first pilgrim albergue on the modern Camino Frances, in Hornillos del Camino, back in 1983. She helped to organize the Federation of Amigos del Camino de Santiago, a national non-profit group dedicated to the pilgrimage. She helped create a hospitality network based on donations and voluntary service -- all in the most humble, quiet way. On a camino bristling with experts, "coaches," academics, and documentary filmmakers, almost nobody knows how important she is.
Lourdes is still around. In Fromista for the past few years, Lourdes and her husband open their apartment in wintertime, when all of Fromista’s for-profit albergues close down. Following the same path Lourdes laid down 30 years ago, they give the pilgrims food and a bed, and ask only for a donation in return. They do it because it’s the right thing to do, because they believe in the pilgrimage. They almost break even.
This year, Lourdes decided to put her camino contacts to work. Starting in December, she made up a list of every open albergue on the Camino Frances – with telephone numbers and email addresses. She updates it frequently, as places open and close almost at random in winter. We’re on the list.
We get a lot more telephone calls lately, people making sure we are for real. We see fewer pilgrims sleeping rough on church porches. We get more pilgrims in here, sometimes too many. We’re eating more lentils and beans and spaghetti. Cheap carbs, easily multiplied. “Pilgrim stodge.”
We’re meeting some cool people, hearing some hair-raising tales of derring-do, and testimonies, too, of faith found and kindness shared. Everyone’s too tired to cause trouble. Nobody has much money. Many of them walk alone, but everyone’s pretty much met everyone else who’s walking out there. The care for one another.
After they settle in and shower the pilgrims text each other, to learn where everyone ended up. They text with translation software, because many of them have no common language. They cannot talk to one another on the phone, but they want to be sure that Soo-Rin or Lindsey or Manuel’s found a place to spend the night.
They are tough and quiet and decent, winter pilgrims. They don’t ask for blow dryers, or the best room. They eat all their stodge, and wait til everyone’s done before they ask for seconds. They do the washing-up. Sometimes they talk, sometimes for hours, sometimes in languages I barely understand.
I used to feel bad about not being needed anymore by pilgrims, now that Moratinos has other accommodation options. But now I look at Lourdes, and I see she’s got it figured out. She is a hospitalera to her bones, but she’s found a way to do her service in winter, when the weather weeds-out the party animals and the lightweights, the drama queens and spiritual consumers.
Winter pilgrims are the real deal. I’m glad Lourdes sends them our way.
Bruno leaves the best for us.