Albergue Ave Fenix, the site of more magic

This story is adapted from my book The Walk of a Lifetime: 500 Miles on the Camino de Santiago.

The best experiences on the Camino aren’t orchestrated. They are the unexpected encounters with friends in cafés, the sandwiches, cookies and apples shared at a picnic bench, the cups of coffee discovered on sleepy mornings, the stranger with an amazing story to tell. By my fourth week walking the Camino Frances, I’d experienced enough of them that I should have seen one when it was coming.

It was still early morning when I overtook my friends Pam and Kathe as we approached the beautiful town of Villafranca del Bierzo. The Bierzo valley, about 40 kilometers wide, lies between two mountain ranges (Monte Irago is in the first) and pilgrims have to cross over both before entering Galicia, where Santiago de Compostela lies. The region has its own microclimate, excellent for growing fruit and grapes and I experienced its delights. Spring was at its peak as I passed through, with orchards of cherry in brilliant white blossom surrounding row after row of grapes. Villafranca is at the western end of the valley, at the confluence of the Rio Burba and the Rio Valcarce. The Camino Frances follows the Valcarce westward up to the O Cebreiro pass and into Galicia.

At the entrance to Villafranca lies the ancient Iglesia de Santiago, begun in 1186 A.D. In the Middle Ages, pilgrims who were too sick to go any farther could enter the church via the north portal, the Puerta de Perdón, and receive the same indulgences and forgiveness of their sins as they would if they had reached Santiago de Compostela. I’d read that there were intricate and well-preserved carvings above the Puerta and I lingered there for several minutes to take photographs of them, reminding myself that I was not, “in a hurry.” Pam and Kathe walked on while I paused longer to look at the carvings and find the best angles for pictures. Satisfied that I had taken plenty of good shots, I continued down a paved path that descended to the center of town, intent on catching up to them.

Going only a few meters, I was passing the Albergue Fenix when the driver of a compact station wagon stopped, rolled down his window and beckoned to me. He was apparently one of several porters who carry backpacks for pilgrims to their next lodging. He had loaded up and was about to pull out, when he put on his brake, shut off the engine and climbed out. He started talking to me rapidly in Spanish and I didn’t understand what he was saying, nor could I understand what he was motioning for me to do. Seeing that I didn’t understand, he gently took hold of my shoulders and spun me 90 degrees, guiding me toward the doorway of the albergue, where he insisted I pull off my pack. I was still baffled and slightly resistant as he pushed me towards the door of the dining area, tugging at my pack and poles at the same time. I was suspicious, confused and defensive, all at once. What was going on?

I reluctantly complied, dropped my pack, though I still couldn’t figure out why or where he was pushing me. He opened the door of the dining area, ushered me in, and there I figured out his intent: there had been too much food laid out for breakfast and much of it was left over. He told me in Spanish that I was to eat whatever I wanted: it was gratis or free. I surveyed the dining area and saw laid out a feast: eggs with various cheeses and roasted peppers, toast, jam, fruit, orange juice, coffee, pastries. A vision of a Heavenly Banquet was in front of me and he reiterated that it was all for free. The pilgrims had all gone and the left-over food would go to waste. My face broke into a wide grin and I nearly broke out laughing. “Gracias, gracias!” I said, nodding my head in comprehension. He smiled back, waved his hand again over the food, then returned to his car.

I wasn’t all that hungry, but knew that in an hour I would be, so I ate, taking my time, savoring each bite of the delicious food, until I sat back, stuffed. It was the best breakfast I’d had yet in Spain. Sitting alone in the dining room I mused once again at my good fortune, feeling foolish—embarrassed, actually— at my initial resistance. A passage from the Gospels slowly came alive: the parable of the Wedding Feast, where God is compared to a master preparing a great banquet, but those invited are too preoccupied with the busyness (and business) of their lives and decline the invitation. Disappointed, the Master instead invites the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame. There is still room so the Master orders his servants to search even wider, the roads and the country lanes, to “compel” more people to come. I saw myself as someone who was “compelled” to come in to the feast.

I can’t say that there was a single “most important” lesson that I learned along the Camino; there were far too many to list only one. Likewise, there was not a single incident that stood above the others. But if there was one incident that encapsulated what the Camino means, it was the one that day in Villafranca del Bierzo: Life is offering us a feast, if only we will lay down our suspicions and our fears and receive it. On pilgrimage, it is referred to as “receiving the Camino.” I was being offered a feast, I didn’t know it and I resisted receiving it.

How often in life do we resist a feast that is laid out for us? How often do we have plans and miss the feast? This meal was a metaphor for the entire Camino, for life. There is so much out there for us, but we are content to miss it. We have to be in control of things, we have to follow a schedule, have to hurry along to the next appointment, the next task, the next item on our mental to-do list. Meanwhile, there are feasts waiting for us. The best experiences I had on the Camino were when things didn’t go as I’d planned, but experiences which, if allowed, would become normal. They are gifts—moments of grace.

My youngest daughter asked me later that day in a message if I was learning anything new. I thought of my experience that day as I answered her. “I’m not sure if I’m learning anything new… just re-learning a lot of things I knew before… I’ll put it this way: you can’t teach an old dog new tricks, but you can teach an old dog his old tricks.” 

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