I’m a sucker for cute old men with something to show me.
I was enjoying my last days on the Camino. I had left my Camino family member, Christina, back in the albergue about an hour earlier, since she was just getting packed as I was heading out the door.
A very unusual situation for us.
But I knew we would catch up with each other before our travels ended. She had a ticket to fly back to the States in about a week and, once out of the albergue, she would be focused.
I, however, was free to dawdle.
My daily routine had settled into enjoying a steaming, sweet, cafe con leche and a croissant about an hour after I started walking every morning. That way, I could get the cobwebs out of my eyes, get all the joints working, and get some distance before my first stop of the day.
But there were not many cafes on this part of the Camino. I had walked for 7 kilometers and was anxious to find a place for breakfast.
I approached the town of Palas de Rei, which seemed especially white and gleaming. The streets were empty because I had missed the early morning rush hour and the pilgrims who had stayed in the albergues in town had already left.
As I walked along, lost in thought and on the lookout for a cafe, a gentleman came up to me on the right. He began talking to me in Spanish and, though my language skills had improved over the weeks, I clearly needed coffee to kick those skills into high gear because I couldn’t understand a word he was saying.
But it may have been that he was speaking Galician, a Spanish dialect that is different from Castilian, the Spanish taught in American schools and spoken around my grandparents’ houses.
Eventually I caught what he was saying. “Are you hungry? Would you like coffee?”
The last time an old man had approached me and offered something, it had turned out well. It had been a few weeks earlier and I had been able to fill my pockets with cherries, my mouth with cookies, and my camera with photos.
It had taught me a Camino lesson – keep your guard up but take a chance when something is offered on the Camino. The benefits usually outweigh the risks.
Remember, this is a pilgrimage. The Saints have your back.
I looked the gentleman in the eye and saw earnestness and honesty. I couldn’t imagine where this would lead but sensed benefit, not disaster.
I followed him down the street. We walked about a block (downhill and I realized I’d have to trudge back uphill to return to the Camino) and then turned into a pristine, but empty, cafe.
In the front window was a pool table, then a folding screen, then the bar area. The room was sparsely decorated, as if still in the setting-up phase. The walls were white and the ceiling was high, which increased the spacious feeling. There were half as many tables and chairs as could easily have filled the space.
The impression was of a clean and well cared for cafe, waiting for customers to arrive.
I was the only customer there, but not the only person. Behind the counter was a young woman who smiled. I heard activity in the kitchen.
I asked for a cafe con leche, which can be found everywhere on the Camino, but didn’t see any bread. I asked if they had a croissant or something similar. “Tiene usted un croissant o pan como algo?” I sputtered. The woman replied that they didn’t have croissants but they had toast.
On the Camino, many cafes and bars offer toast and coffee as a standard breakfast menu, so this was very fine for me. Picture a toasted baguette, not a toasted slice of white sandwich bread, with lots of butter, jelly, and sometimes honey. I ordered coffee, toast, and orange juice. I took off my backpack and took out my phone and guidebook.
The juice was fresh squeezed, as was all the orange juice I bought in bars on the Camino.
I had lingered in many bars in the mornings, watching automatic juicers squeeze orange juice out of freshly cut oranges.
The barman or woman would open a mesh bag of oranges, slice two or more in half, and drop each half down a chute in the top. The halves would be pressed between two rollers and a waterfall of juice would come out the bottom and go directly into the glass, the peel falling into a container.
The barkeepers always used enough oranges to fill a good-sized glass. These oranges were bred for juicing – they were 99% liquid.
This orange juice was cold and just sweet enough to stick in my mind forever as the gold standard for orange juice.
This cafe/bar was, in fact, relatively new – it had just opened the November before. The daughter, who was the woman behind the counter, had recently opened it as an albergue and cafe for pilgrims on the Camino. There were beds upstairs, although by that hour all the pilgrims had left.
She was making a go of this new business and her mother, who had made my toast in the kitchen, and her father, who had snagged me on the road, were helping her. Her parents owned another place on the other side of town. I imagine that they helped her out financially, also, which perhaps was why they were there.
The daughter told me that, like many bars on the Camino, they would be open until the late hours of the evening. This explained the pool table in the front.
I gained a new appreciation for the father standing on the corner, selling pilgrims on the idea of stopping for a bite to eat. The location of this bar, just off the beaten path, did not work in their favor. But the food was very good, the service warm and friendly, and the prices perfect.
I left about an hour later, having eaten and rested, and another pilgrim having arrived (Dad had been pounding the pavement again). This place, Cafe Bar Santirso, deserved more traffic and I would be happy to stop there again on my next Camino Frances.
To put icing on the cake, Dad showed me a shortcut back to the Camino, no hill climbing needed. Maravilloso!
Back on the road, I continued towards Melide. Had Christina passed me? Probably. Would I find her in Melide? Probably not, it is a city with many albergues.
But I knew I would see her and Andres and Juan Carlos, my Camino family, soon, although I didn’t know where or how.