The Camino de Santiago is not a nature trail. While some natural beauty can be found, there are many other trails in the world that offer better scenery. The Camino a spiritual experience. Many people walk the Camino as an opportunity to reflect on life, change, or just get away for a while. However, the real magic of the Camino is in the people we meet. There is no better way to really get to know people from other cultures and stations of life than to spend time walking together and talking. Some become lifelong friends, some share interesting conversations for a few hours, and still others are characters that will be remembered for a long time.
We entered the small village of Reliegos somewhere near the halfway point of the Camino de Santiago in Spain. The town was comprised of a lot of mud walls and houses. It reminded me more of South America, than Europe. One building painted in blue and covered in graffiti stood out was called the Elvis Bar.
The sound of blues music lured us in. When we walked in, we felt like we were back home in Mississippi. It looked and felt like a Mississippi Delta juke joint. We spoke to the bartender and said we would be back after we checked in to our Albergue.
When we arrived at the Albergue we were greeted by a rather gruff man. We told him that we had reservations for a private room but he informed us that he didn’t have us listed. We asked about our bag which we had arranged to be sent ahead. He looked at us like he didn’t know what we were talking about. I could feel the panic beginning to rise.
Ol tried to engage him in conversation but he didn’t speak English. I immediately started typing into Google translate but it didn’t work because of a lack of wifi. We then called our last hotel to find our bag. After 30 minutes our bag was located and we were told that it would be forwarded to our next stop in Leon. So, for the night we wouldn’t have our toiletries or sleeping bags. All we could do was get a glass of wine and make reservations for Leon.
We decided to head out to Elvis’s. I was stressed out and Elvis’s reminded me a bit of home. Entering the bar, there are so many things that draw your attention it is hard to focus. Was it the pig leg on the bar? The endless graffiti? The t-shirts covering every square inch of wall space? Maybe it was the tv in the corner that was set-up playing an endless loop of the Martin Sheen movie “The Way” in which the Elvis bar has a cameo appearance.
The energetic bar owner, poured us a glass of wine from his own bottle boasting his picture. Ol had to get a photo even though a big sign warned against taking pictures.
We found a small table and before we knew it bar snacks appeared. Finally, some roasted chestnuts, Ol and I have been walking over chestnuts for the last two months and this was the first time anyone served them.Unfortunately, Ol popped one into his mouth before I had a chance to tell him to peel them. After his second attempt he was smitten.
Pretty soon, more tapas arrived and the bar owner kept refilling our glasses. After an hour the bar started filling with other pilgrims including a Russian that we had met earlier in the day.
Vlado was a larger than life Russian from Latvia now living in Dublin. He was loud and boisterous with a quick and hardy laugh. We walked for about 30 minutes before he had to leave us to do a radio show in his native Latvia. He calls in daily to give them an update on his journey. We immediately hit it off. He reminded me of our Polish friend “Wild” who hiked the JMT with us in California (the big smile and laugh and a crazy heavy backpack).
We were surprised when Vlado walked into the bar with his backpack. We invited him to join us as we wanted to learn more about his story. We learned about his service in the special forces in the Russian army, and we also learned that we can’t keep up with a Russian when it comes to drinking!
Vlado was unsure if his knee problem would let him finish the Pilgrimage. Ol tried to lift his pack and couldn’t believe how heavy it was. I tried to explain that if he lightened his pack it would help his knees. He was having none of it. His pack was his “friend” and no one touched his pack.
After a few more beers, he finally let us see what was inside his pack. When he pulled out a six pack of beer, I couldn’t stop laughing. The food he was carrying weighed more than Ol’s pack. He was young and strong and he made it that far, so I just laughed.
About 11:00 p.m. Ol and I had had enough and said our farewells. We headed back to our Albergue to find that we were locked out! It was now freezing outside. Vlado, accompanied us hoping that he could get a room.
We were shocked to find the Alberque closed and the keys we were given didn’t open the door. We thought that if we banged on the door or threw pebbles at the windows someone would take pity on us and open the door.
After 20 minutes, it finally dawned on us that everyone was probably sleeping in the dorm with earplugs. We headed back to Elvis’s and the bartender called the hotel owner. The town was small enough so that everyone knew each other.
The owner arrived and and snarled at us. He pointed to a sign high up on the wall that stated that curfew was 10 pm. We tried to explain that in nearly 2 months we have never had this happen. The curfew generally only applies to the dorm rooms and not private rooms. Why didn’t he tell us this when we checked in. We tried to make amends by apologizing, but the owner would have nothing to do with it. I started up the stairs as Vlado tried to rent a room. The owner said that he was closed and would not rent a room to Vlado. No room for you!
I opened the door to our room and was surprised to see my breath. Did Ol leave the window open? Usually our rooms are too hot. That was not the case. There was no thermostat and the heat was off and our room was freezing. The bed had a thin sheet and bedspread. Thankfully, I had enough wine at Elvis’ that I fell fast asleep.
I awoke around 4 a.m. shivering and Ol was snoring. I was freezing. As is usual in Spain, we were in the twin bed situation again. I pulled on my hat and coat and fell back asleep. At 5 a.m. I finally crawled into Ol’s bed. We didn’t fit, but we were trying to keep warm.
At 7 a.m. we could hear our fellow hikers up and about. I finally got Ol up at 8 a.m. I thought that the only thing that would warm me up was to walk. After getting some food out of the vending machine we hit the road.
We were surprised that nothing in the town was open for breakfast. We met a few other hikers also looking for coffee and something to eat. After giving up we set-off for the next town which was five kilometers away. Hopefully we could get breakfast there.
We were laughing about the crazy night when In the distance we noticed a hiker. As we got closer, we realized that it was Vlado! He was apparently in worse shape than we were. He was walking, but he was swerving across both sides of the road.
Soon we caught up and greeted our Russian friend. He told us of his harrowing tale at Elvis’s bar where he returned after he left us. Vlado couldn’t find a room but was told that he was welcome to curl up in a corner of the bar. Vlado told us that he waited for the bar to quiet down, but more and more people kept arriving. At 5:00 a.m. people were still coming into the bar. He told us that the bartender brought out his shot gun and showed it to Vlado. He wanted to use Vlado’s backpack for target practice. At this point Vlado said that he left the bar and started walking.
We made it to the next town and ended up having a great breakfast and laughing about the crazy night on the Camino.
Imagine our surprise one week later when we met a young couple early in the afternoon. They said it had taken them over four hours to walk less than three kilometers. They explained that they had met a Russian named Vlado the night before. They had a wild night, but at lunch they were still drinking with him. The wine never ended! They were now hiking under the influence and not making much progress.
We laughed and shared our Vlado story. We agreed that a Michelin star Restaurant in France is the most danger you will face, but on the Camino in Spain you should watch out for an outgoing Russian with a big backpack and an even bigger laugh.