I left Hontanas with a spring in my step. It was- for me- one of those perfect Camino villages. Small, a couple albergues, one bar/restaurant where all the pilgrims sat and drank and talked, a pretty church, lots of character. I’d gone to bed the night before in a room of 8, sleeping on a top bunk next to an open window. There was a view of the village rooftops, a fading violet sky, a bright moon.
That morning I’d woken early, shoved my things in my pack and went downstairs to the bar to have a cafe con leche and a croissant. One of my favorite things on the Camino was when a bar would be open by 6:30 so I could have coffee before I left for the day’s walk, and it was for this that I left Hontanas with a spring in my step.
I was feeling good. Still adjusting to being without Mirra and for the first time (except for the beginning of my Camino through the Pyrenees), feeling like I was truly on my own. I was nervous, but I was also excited. That night I would be staying in a place where, most likely, I wouldn’t know anyone: La Ermita de San Nicolas.
I’d heard about San Nicolas before leaving for my Camino, and it was on my short list of must-sees/must-dos. A 13th century church now converted into a pilgrim albergue, run by a confraternity of Italian men. The building had no electricity, there was a communal dinner with a pilgrim blessing, and some sort of ritual foot washing. I’d purposefully stayed in Hontanas the night before so that I would have a short walk to San Nicolas, ensuring that I would arrive early enough to secure one of the 12 beds.
The morning walk was beautiful, and with the help of the cafe con leche, I sailed through the kilometers. I arrived at San Nicolas at 10:30, the earliest I’d ever arrived to my evening’s destination. On the door of a church was a sign that said the albergue would open at 3:00, but luckily the door was cracked so I pushed it open and stepped inside. Several pilgrims were there, looking around the building and getting stamps for their credentials. One of the Italian hospitaleros was there too, and he greeted me warmly.
“I’m hoping to stay here tonight,” I explained to him.
He looked around, then looked down at me. “Yes,” he nodded. We don’t sign anyone in until 3, but you can pick out a bed and leave your pack, and then come back.”
I smiled, thrilled that I would be able to stay for the night. As I spread my sleeping bag out on a bottom bunk, he came over and asked for my name.
A flash of recognition came over his face. “Ah yes, Nadine, you are the American? We were expecting you.”
It’s a strange and unnerving feeling to be in the middle of northern Spain, standing in a small church surrounded by nothing but wheat fields and to be told that I was expected here, in this place.
I stammered. “How did you know I would be coming?”
“A boy told us.”
I’m still not exactly sure who this could have been. Possibly Etienne, a French guy I’d met the day before. We’d had our morning coffee together coming out of Burgos, and later ran into each other for lunch as well. He’d been walking for over a month at that point, having started in France, and averaged about 40 kilometers a day. I had told him that I planned to stay in San Nicolas, and we looked it up in his guidebook. He had left Hontanas earlier than me that morning, and so I suppose that as he was passing through, he might have stopped in San Nicolas and told the hospitalero that he knew a girl who planned to stay for the night.
I never saw Etienne again, so I’ll never know for sure if it was him or not. But whoever it was, I was grateful. It was the first time on the Camino that I was branching off on my own, and I had walked into a place and instantly felt welcomed, and like I belonged there.
So I stashed my pack and threw some necessary items into my day bag: flip flops, my fleece, bottle of water, can of tuna fish, bread, cheese, peach, spork, journal. I set off towards the nearest town, 2km away, planning to find a nice spot to eat lunch, and then hopefully a bar to have a coffee or a drink. As I walked a car drove past me, slammed on its brakes, then reversed to come back to me. The window rolled down and the hospitalero I’d spoken with 20 minutes before leaned out, asking me if I would like a ride.
I only hesitated for a moment. As I’d been walking I thought that I would not only have to double back and walk these kilometers in reverse, but that I would walk them again the following morning. So when the offer of a ride came, I was tempted. I would still walk these Camino kilometers, but I would walk them the next day, as part of my actual Camino.
But as quickly as the thought entered my head, it vanished. I smiled at the car and shook my head. “No thank you, I like walking.”
The late morning and afternoon ended up being one of the best of my Camino. It was the first short day I walked, and it almost felt like a rest day. I found a shaded spot next to an old church to eat my lunch, and when I saw Ibai walking past I waved to him and he came to sit with me. I ended up walking further with him into the town and to a bar where we met up with Vinny and Vicool and Hyoeun and Jiwoo. They were breaking for lunch, and were tired. Sitting with them, I thought about how nice it felt to be done for the day, and how happy I was that I’d decided to stay at San Nicolas.
And the experience at San Nicolas was, indeed, a special one. I returned to the albergue and went about the normal “chores” of the day: showering and washing clothes. But from the moment I returned I felt a different kind of energy around the place. There was nearly always a feeling of kindness and peace on the Camino, but it was more present at San Nicolas. Pepe, another one of the Italian hopsitaleros, told me that I was home. “For today, and tonight, this is your home.” Jerome, a French boy with a wide brimmed hat and a sly smile, shook my hand as soon as he saw me. I met Eva, an Italian woman with dark eyes and a soft voice, and Alice, another Italian woman who laughed like a child and kept repeating, “I am so happy to be here.”
I sat outside in the back courtyard with my journal, and throughout the afternoon people came to sit with me: Jerome, Alice, Rudy, an American from Chicago who I’d encountered a few times before. The caretaker of San Nicolas, an old man wearing a long, worn sweater, came over to me a few times. He only spoke Spanish, and I nodded along, trying to understand his words. But it didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand; he smiled at me, then pulled several Maria biscuits from his pocket and placed them down on my journal.
Pepe came over, squinting against the sun. “You’re a writer,” he said in his raspy voice.
“Yes, I like to write,” I replied.
“Okay, okay,” he paused for a long time looking off into the distance, and I wondered if he’d forgotten that I was there. But then he looked down at me again. “You should keep writing. Maybe you should write a book.”
And then he walked off, leaving me to wonder if this place, like some others along the Camino, held a bit of magic.
Before dinner we sat in the altar of the church, in upright wooden chairs. Pepe and the other hospitaleros wore dark brown cloaks, and read a pilgrim blessing in Italian. Then the moved around to each pilgrim, asking that we place our right foot over a basin of water while they read a few words and rubbed a wet cloth over our feet.
We sat down for dinner at a long wooden table, candles at each place. A cucumber, tomato and olive salad; pasta carbonara; bread and cheese; melon and wine. Food was continually passed around, the candles were lit, coffee was served. I spoke with a German man on my left and Eva across from me. We joked that both the coffee and the wine were like fuel on the Camino. “To more fuel, more energy!” the German man cried, pouring us wine and lifting his glass for a toast. We echoed his words. “To more energy, to the Camino!”
The night slowed down, quietly. At 10:00pm I stood outside, wrapping my arms around my body for warmth. The sun had set and there was a soft orange glow over everything. A wind blew through the wheat fields and it was all you could hear: we were alone. No buildings, no roads except for the Camino, no pilgrims passing at this hour. Alone, but exactly where I was supposed to be.
In the morning we drank coffee and ate toast by candlelight, and slowly packed our things to leave. I thanked the hospitaleros, and Pepe gave me a hug. “You could stay here for a few days, if you want,” he rasped. “Help cook, and clean, and then continue on your Camino.”
I wasn’t sure if he was serious. But in any case, my pack was on my back, my shoes on my feet. Every day on the Camino I wanted to walk, and I did walk. It wasn’t time for me to stay put yet, even if staying put only meant a day or two.
“Yes,” Pepe nodded when he saw I was leaving. “Keep writing. Write a book.”
I walked away from San Nicolas, leaving before anyone else. Feeling strong, feeling at peace, feeling energized. Ready for whatever would come next.