May 24: Madrid to Ponferrada
There's not a lot to say about the bus trip. The bus leaves from the airport which is very handy if you are staying at a hotel with an airport shuttle (which we were). We had to be up early to get the bus and given my jet lag and overall excitement, I didn't sleep much at all last night. But it was an easy trip anyway. I sat next to a woman named Lucha whose father had just died; she was on her way to Ponferrada to connect with the rest of her family. She had worked as a travel agent and spoke some English so we were able to struggle together with Spanglish for much of the 6 hour trip. A gentle way to start using Spanish again.
We arrived in Ponferrada just before 4 pm and started asking directions for the aubergue. With each request, we were given a very fast stream of orders to go “a la derecha, a la izquierda, derecho” etc. Eventually, in spite of it, we wandered into the aubergue. It was a wonderful welcome: we opened the gate into a little courtyard where people of all ages sat at little tables, resting, enjoying cold drinks, eating bread and cheese. Laundry hung on lines all around the edges of the yard. Someone greeted us in Spanish and handed us each a little glass; someone else came around to fill it with sweet, orange-flavoured water. We signed the registration form and got our very first sello (pilgrims' stamp) in our credencials. We were shown to our bunks in a large room full of bunk beds (20? more?). We dumped our packs and went out to explore the city.
There is a lot to see in Ponferrada even if you are in near-zombie condition. The most outstanding landmark is the castle, built by the Templars in the 15th century. It is like a castle in a children's book, on the high point of town beside the river. Getting to it is half the fun: the town is full of narrow winding streets, old bridges, churches, and endless sidewalk cafes. It's just all so different from urban environments in North America.
Back at the aubergue, we cleaned up and got ready for bed. I have been in lots of hostels before, even co-ed hostels in Quebec, but this was my first time in a hostel with co-ed washrooms. It is not something we are accustomed to, to be brushing our teeth in a sink, facing a man using the urinal. We were warned us that Quiet Time would begin at 9:30 and they were right: the lights simply went out and we were all in the dark. The room was instantly quiet.
But not for long. Soon the snoring began. And then people got up to use the toilets and stumbled back to bed with flashlights making random lasers around the room. I don't remember sleeping (AGAIN) but I must have dozed off for a few hours at least.