Paul Flynn: Eating all around us on the Camino

Groaning jugs of wine, grizzled chicharron, unending octopus and fish so fresh it shimmers

Paul Flynn (right) and his Camino de Santiago walking partners David Gaffney (Dof) and Pat Mcgrath  in front on the Cathedral of St James , Santiago De Compostella .

Paul Flynn (right) and his Camino de Santiago walking partners David Gaffney (Dof) and Pat Mcgrath in front on the Cathedral of St James , Santiago De Compostella .

 

The first thing to come was the wine, two groaning jugs, one white, one red, and three small bowls to drink it from. We all laughed in unison. I had been telling the boys about these mythical bowls. I’m not sure they believed me but here they were at last. I was vindicated.

We were in O Gato Negro, a formica coated gem in Santiago de Compostella. Having been given a tip, I was determined to get there, but the secret was well and truly out, possibly since the 1950s. As spartan as a monk’s cell, it was as packed as a restaurant can be in these times.

It took two attempts to get in as the patron who came to the door told us that we could only reserve for the following evening. He was as brusque as only the chronically busy can be. It was unintended as he was just trying to deal with my non-existent Spanish while also serving, cleaning and pouring as fast as his wiry aging frame would let him.

We walked just short of 100 kilometres over four days on the Via de la Plata that starts in Seville, 800km from Santiago. Us part-time pilgrims started from the little city of Ourense. It nestles in a considerable valley, so setting off before dawn, I wheezed up to the top, my face alternating through the colours of the Spanish flag as I puffed and spluttered.

There was a granny at the top, there always seems to be with me. She addressed us in Spanish, then switched to English when she saw our blank faces, but underneath I detected a French accent. She had walked from Salamanca with her backpack, some 350km to the south. With a wave of her hand and a smile, she dismissed us as tourists. We went on our way, emasculated.

Our bags, save for some water, lotions and potions, were being ferried from hotel to hotel by our tour company.

It is essential to travel with a curious mind. Pat, a farmer of my vintage, ploughed on like a tough old goat, never flagging for a minute. Dof, more than 10 years younger and a triathlete, glided over the distance like a ghost. I continued to puff but I’m stubborn and the lads were patient.

Preparing and serving the famous dish Pulpo in Galicia
Preparing and serving pulpo in Galicia

We ate everything around us as we walked; hunger is the best sauce. Acorn fed pork with piquillo pepper. Garbanzos (chickpeas) stewed with tripe. Lentils with unidentifiable porky bits. We greedily sucked the heads of langostinos because that’s what Anthony Bourdain would have done, their juices like a jolt of bisque-like pleasure. We had grizzled chicharron (fried pork rinds), bacon stewed with chestnuts, and seemingly unending pulpo (octopus) as warm and tender as your own baby’s bottom. We washed it all down with buckets of Albariño, Ribera and cool crisp Estrella beer. We ate and drank like kings.

We made our way through the tracks and dreamy roads, crunching on thousands of hazelnuts. Occasionally figs plopped alongside them for company. What a tart that would make, I always thought. We were mostly lucky with the weather, only one bad day. Buon Camino would be the spirit-lifting greeting from the always-friendly locals; do they ever tire of it?

Our first night in Santiago was a joy. People, mostly Spanish, danced in the streets to two guitarists all singing along to well-worn Spanish songs. You could sense the elation, they were getting a glimpse of their old lives once again.

When you walk the Camino, for however long, you will end up in Plaza del Obradoiro. It is a very special place. The joy on people’s faces, the relief and the emotion are palpable. Some hug, some cheer, some lie down to take it in. I could watch it all day. Each and every one has their own reason for walking.

I want to go twice next year, if I can find the time. To my frustration, we only found the market on the last hour of the last day. It bustled with people sheltering from the downpour outside. Tiny restaurants proliferated. Wonderful smells wafted through the building alongside fish so fresh, it shimmered.

We looked at each other with disbelief and regret. How on earth did we miss this! We’ll have to come again. The Camino de Santiago was there a long time before us and will be there a long time after we have gone. We are just specks on a well worn road.

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