When I walked the Camino de Santiago through the north of Spain in 2011, I reached the small village of Rabanal del Camino on 3 September. Staying in the Refugio Gaucelmo was definitely a highlight. Gaucelmo was a fitting name because he was a 12th century local hermit who built a church, a hospice and hospital for pilgrims. His spirit lives on for I received one of the warmest welcomes from the three hospitaleros.
The refugio is run by the Confraternity of St James, an English-based organisation. It organises a roster of hospitale ros from its members. Volunteers stay for two weeks. Everyone at some stage has walked the Camino. I thought at the time… “I’d like to do that one of these days”. That day arrived in June this year. I had already joined Australian Friends of the Camino, and had expressed an interest in being a hospitalero. In January I underwent a 2-day training course in Sydney.
I revised my limited knowledge of Spanish for the ability to converse in Spanish was considered a desirable attribute. Pilgrims come from many countries so the Camino is a multilingual environment. As part of our hospitalero training we were given a five language dictionary covering all the likely situations – Spanish, English, French, Portuguese, and German.
Rabanal is beautiful. In the middle ages it was an important stopping place for pilgrims on the way to Santiago. It crumbled into a heap of ruins due to centuries of neglect but now, following the late 20th century revival of the pilgrimage, house by house it is gradually being restored, including the refugio, a major project of the Confraternity. It was once the parish house and began operating in 1991 to fill the gap in accommodation between Astorga and Ponferrado, an exposed and rugged 54km stretch of the Camino. The refugio offers accommodation for 40 bona fide pilgrims only. Pilgrims who use motorised assistance (eg luggage transport services) are not normally admitted unless there are health issues or other valid reasons. The refugio is beautiful. It has an extensive garden with many rose bushes in full bloom as well as a herb garden.
On 28 May I flew to Madrid, then took a bus to Astorga and a taxi about 20ks to Rabanal. I met my two fellow hospitaleros, Hope and Finola, both English. We spent the first few days settling in and soon developed into an excellent working team. We had lots of fun with much banter and jokes. We were incredibly busy every day. Whoever was on breakfast got up at 5.30am and we closed the gates at 10pm. We had to deal with all manner of issues, from hail storms which flooded a dormitory, power failures, bed bugs, drunken pilgrims, and all manner of requests from pilgrims. Some days we lurched from minor crisis to crisis. But we coped.
The pilgrims came from many countries and spoke many languages. In the two weeks we welcomed 470 pilgrims from 36 countries, including five Australians. Finola has good Spanish but no French, while both Hope and I had good French and limited Spanish. I was both surprised and pleased just how far I got with my limited Spanish. One of my jobs was to lead the pilgrims to their beds, encourage them to put their pillows in the pillow case so that I would know which beds were taken and show them the kitchen, showers and toilets . Although most had at least a smattering of English, I developed a little patter, jumping from language to language and frequently resorting to gestures. That five language dictionary came in incredibly handy.
We gave the pilgrims a breakfast of bread and jam but I offered the Australians vegemite. The pilgrims departed by 8am and then we spent 3 hours cleaning and preparing the refuge for the next lot. Standards of hygiene are very high and I learned many new skills relevant to industrial cleaning. I reckon I could go into the business. About 11am we rewarded ourselves with a coffee at one of the bars.
The pilgrims were great to meet and so thankful for what we offered – a warm, cheerful welcome, a chance to care for their aching bodies and blistered feet, hot showers, a place to wash their clothes, a lovely garden for warm days and a fire when the days were cold. Many said the warm welcome and its peaceful ambience made our refugio one of the best on the Camino. A Frenchman told me we probably did not realise what impact we were having. I could relate to his comment because I had experienced expressionless hospitaleros who tapped their pencil impatiently while I searched for my passport, who made no eye contact, who focused on their phones and pointed at the register, indifference oozing out of every pore. It was nice to feel that we were doing something worthwhile and appreciated.
We did not offer dinner but referred the pilgrims to our kitchen or to one of the two restaurants. However, we did provide English afternoon tea every afternoon at five, an institution which seemed to be well known on the Camino. It was wonderful to see the pilgrims coming together, discussing their experiences, supporting and encouraging each other.
The refugio has very good relations with the approximately 35 permanent residents of the village and we got to know many of them. Susanne ran the small shop around the corner. Her husband Ramon was the refugio’s handyman. He showed me how to start the lawn mower and then did the job of cutting the grass himself. Sarah and her sister Anne ran the shop around the other corner. Antoine, Christina and Ivan (Susanne’s son) worked in the restaurant/bar opposite while Augustine, Susanna and Manipaz ran the other restaurant/bar just up the road. Esperanza, Isabelle and Mercedes ran the other refugio. We gave our bread scraps to an old chap, Oblines, for his chooks. He spent his day either sitting on a bench outside his house or in either of the two bars.
Next door was the monastery (Monasterio Benedictino de San Salvador de Monte Irago). The monks were German and came to our afternoon tea to meet pilgrims. We saw Brother Marinus, a young novice, every day and the abbot Father Xavier regularly. Brother Marinus was a serious young man while Father Xavier had a delightful larrikin streak and a great sense of fun. Although Spanish he was also fluent in German and English. The monks held daily services in the village church opposite, all sung in Gregorian chant. One of our jobs was to enlist pilgrims to read a prayer in their own language at the 7pm Vespers. Compline at 9.30pm included a pilgrims’ blessing although many weary pilgrims had retired by then.
Our two weeks passed so quickly and in no time our replacements arrived – Donna, Barbara and Susan all from Canada. We spent a day handing over and then we were free, a strange sensation after our 2 weeks of responsibility. I attended the 9.30am Mass for the first time for I had been busy every other day with my cleaning chores. I lit a candle for my Maris, my wife of 42 years, who died 10 years before of suicide after years of suffering from depression. I shed a tear I’m afraid. The day was Tuesday which happened to be the day when Fr Xavier celebrated the Mass in English as all the locals were at the market in Astorga. He made a special point of blessing and thanking the departing hospitaleros. Outside, there were hugs and farewells, and then the three of us, Hope, Finola and I, walked 9ks to the Cruz de Ferro. This iron cross is on top of a cairn begun in pre-Roman times, making it the most ancient monument on the Camino. Gaucelmo christianised it by placing the cross. The tradition is to place on the cairn a rock carried from home, which is what I did, all the way from my garden in Jindabyne. We said goodbye.
Finola continued walking to Ponferrado while Hope and I ordered a taxi to take us back to Astorga. From there, I took the bus to Madrid and then the night train to Lisbon, where I began walking the Camino Portugués.
Author: The day was made for walking: An Aussie’s search for meaning on the Camino de Santiago