A Communal Evening on the Camino de Santiago
Albergue Borda is one of only two places to stay in the French Pyrenees on the Camino de Santiago pilgrimage trail. Many people walk from St Jean Pied de Port, France straight on to Roncesvalles, Spain, crossing the Pyrenees in one day. But that’s a hike of about 22 miles (35 km) and I didn’t want to injure myself on my first day. So I had booked a bed at the albergue (a hostel for pilgrims walking the Camino) and arrived quite early, before check in. I was offered a beer and sat outside resting, enjoying the mountain view greeting other pilgrims as they arrived.
Laurent, the owner of Albergue Borda, had bought and renovated an old farmhouse and sheep barn the year before. It now runs entirely on solar, is supplied with mountain spring water and uses water conservation methods. He used stones from an ancient church nearby that had collapsed to restructure the barn walls. It was simple, modernized, beautiful, and imbued with the ancestry of the place.
Laurent gave us clear instructions and expectations for the hostel, considering covid and the need to keep the place clean and running smoothly. I felt this inspired communal and personal responsibility among us. I chose a bed by the door, put on the fitted paper sheet and rolled my sleeping bag out. I had a curtain to close off my bed, my own outlets and light, a basket for belongings, and hooks. Backpacks and hiking shoes were kept downstairs on metal shelves to prevent bedbugs. The ceiling was high with old timber rafters and beams in what used to be the sheep barn.
Dinner was a communal meal, cooked by Laurent himself, who was a chef in his other life before he decided to buy the farmhouse and sheep barn a year and a half ago. All of us pilgrims plus a few women visiting from Bilbao, Spain, about 20 people in total, introduced ourselves, said where we were from and a few words about why we had come to walk the Camino. Many were from Europe- Netherlands, Belgium, Italy, Bulgaria, France, Spain. Two were from Montreal, Canada- and had just met on the trail. The farthest traveler had come from South Korea. Only the oldest person- an 81 year old man who was on his second Camino- and I were from the US. The most charming couple — a man from Italy and a Bulgarian woman from Germany, had lost their spouses and found each other on the Camino, and now live together in Portugal, hiking different Camino trails when they can. I met a young Dutch psychologist who was considering changing careers. She had already been walking for a month through France.
The room was full of people who either had walked the Camino before and were drawn back to it, or were walking it for the first time, many of whom had questions about their life that were not easily articulated. Questions about purpose, how to live a meaningful life, and reevaluating what’s truly important. People who were ready for a change or reset on life- myself included- and needed space and time to think. As a mother with kids at home, I needed this acutely, but I was not alone. One young woman had lost her father and needed time and space to grieve. I considered the humanity, the solidarity between us- we were seeking something beautiful and meaningful after a year and a half of worldwide atrophy. We were actively doing it together and individually to the rhythm of walking, like a chant, a prayer, hoping clarity would come.
Our host and chef, served us vegetable soup to start in large earthen pots with oversized hooked ladels. The chill from the mountains and my hunger made me ravenous for the hot, aromatic broth with herbs and chunks of root vegetables. We served each other, passed sliced baguette and butter, chatted and laughed, getting to know each other.
Our second course was plates of kielbasa, piperade, and potatoes. I have been vegetarian for many years, but I will make exceptions for feasts like this. I had missed eating sausage and this was the most delicious I could remember. The piperade- stewed peppers, tomatoes, onion and garlic- was silky, almost creamy. The potatoes, simple and cooked to perfection with olive oil. I tend to be a vocal eater, and couldn’t help mmmm-ing and remarking on how delectable the meal was. We refilled our wine glasses and served each other seconds until the platters were empty.
Plates of French cheese cut in long triangles, like manchego, and small bowls of homemade berry preserves were passed around. As this was my first time in France I followed the other Europeans and spooned the preserves onto the cheese. The sweet tartness paired with the slightly pungent, creamy cheese was a perfect shift from the previous course. Then Laurent served us a Basque cake, golden colored and grainy, with dense custard inside. Marvelous.
With a full and satisfied belly, I felt very warm inside and I could feel my cheeks flushing pink. My heart was full from the rich, open conversations taking place down the long tables full of strangers from across the world. There is something so freeing in sharing our personal stories with strangers. Without pretensions, fully relaxed, genuinely content and at ease with ourselves. Our situations were different but there was a common thread- an inherently human need, a desire, a quest- connecting us.
I awoke before dawn, the mountains invisible in the pitch black. Millions of stars and the depth of the cosmos could be seen without cloud cover or the air pollution I’m used to. Others joined me outside to await the sunrise. We paced to keep warm, speaking softly to honor the dawn. The mountains started to appear as textureless shades of blue in layers. Fog hung in the valleys, and the vista continued to shift and illuminate. The horizon turned orange and pink, with thin streaks of grey stratus clouds slicing into the twilight. And finally, with a collective gasp, and one pilgrim summoning others with “it’s happening!”, we watched the sun, blazing orange, slip up from between the cleavage, a miraculous spectacle we felt humbled to witness.
“Buen Camino”, we said to each other, as one by one we left the albergue grounds, the cow bells clanging and the morning mist heavy in the valleys.