Mulled Wine and Hailstorms

The 3am crack of thunder woke everyone in the room. Not that anyone said anything, of course. But I could hear the change in breath, the awareness as ten pilgrims listened to the rain outside the two single-pane windows and thought about the coming day.

We were in Astorga, a city of moderate size tucked neatly between the flat, sunny plains of central Spain and the green Galician mountains. The weather had been clear and warm for weeks. But we’d watched the clouds roll in earlier that afternoon, and they meant business.

Despite the rain, the alarms still went off at 5:00, and the other pilgrims in our room banged around in the dark, rustling bags and ponchos and bouncing flashlight beams around. I kept my head on my pillow and my eyes stubbornly closed. There’s an odd pressure, especially in the public albergues, to get up before dawn and to be the first ones out the door, regardless of how far the day’s walk would be. Or how dreadful the weather outside is.

Our Seattle friend Emily was in Spain and walking with us for a week, getting a taste of the Camino. (You know that you’ve been traveling for a long time when your friends from home come to visit you on your vacation.) We all rolled out of our bunks at 6:30, and while the steady rain beat the windows, we packed anything paper or electronic into Ziploc bags, and then tucked those deep inside our trash bag-lined packs. (There’s a reason why I don’t have photos of the worst of the rainy days; protecting the camera seemed more important than capturing the moment.) We covered the packs with rain covers, covered ourselves with jackets and hats, and took stock of the situation.

The rain was a steady, cool drizzle that felt familiar.

“This isn’t so bad,” Eric said as we followed rain-slick yellow arrows around corners and down the narrow city streets. “It’s just like Seattle.”

The Spanish rain gods didn’t appreciate the comparison. He’d barely finished the words when the sky opened, and the drizzle became a biblical-proportion deluge. Pilgrims scampered through sheets of water toward whatever shelter they could find. They huddled in coffee shops and bus stops. We ducked back under the roof of a nearby shop.

But it was hopeless. My shoes were already full of water, and my saturated pants stuck to me.

There was no way to beat this rain. And there was really nowhere for a pilgrim to hide indoors at 7:30 in the morning. So we walked another block.

The rain dripped down the sleeves of my jacket and soaked through my socks and underwear. My hair dripped into my eyes. I was sure I couldn’t possibly get wetter.

“At least it can’t get worse,” Eric announced.

The Spanish rain gods sent hail a few seconds later.

We made Eric stop talking about the weather.

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The hail passed fairly quickly, and the lightning trailed off, but it continued to rain for most of the morning as we slogged over a highway, past the end of the pavement, and up a long, straight dirt road that ran through remote, unprotected countryside. I don’t remember much of the scenery, probably because my eyes were on the ground, looking out for the next puddle. I slogged forward in an attitude that could be generously called resigned. Emily and Eric, on the other hand, had a splashing good time.

We passed through a few small villages, where the bars and cafes were doing brisk business. We stopped once, but the room was full of steaming, dripping pilgrims, and the process of getting out of the cold, wet rain gear (and then back into it) was worse than just staying outside and moving forward. So we kept walking, up into the hills, squishing forward.

It’s just 20 kilometers from Astorga to Rabanal, a relatively easy walk. Since we weren’t lingering over coffee or stopping to admire the scenery, we arrived early, a little after noon. I was footsore, cranky, and tired, not used to such a relentless pace.

But it’s hard to stay miserable when you walk into a fairy tale.

Until that point, Spanish towns had seemed, well, Spanish. Smooth bricks, white walls, red roofs, wide streets, and open spaces. Rabanal was something entirely different. The town was shrouded in fog and set onto a steep hillside, the buildings long and low, built from the local grey stone of the mountainside. Monks in long black robes walked purposefully along winding streets. The whole place felt ancient and sleepy, and I had a glimpse of the Celtic roots of Galicia.

It was exactly the kind of place you wanted to be on a cold, wet afternoon.

The first order of business, as always, was to find a place to stay. We hunted down Refugio Guacelmo recommended in the guidebook, run by British volunteers and open only to “bona fide” pilgrims who arrive on foot and carrying their own bags. No baggage service deliveries here.

I was sold.

We found the building in an old parish house, next door to the monastery bookstore. The gate was still closed, the opening still an hour away, and there were just two bags sitting in line ahead of us. Many pilgrims, it seemed, were not going to make the full walk to Rabanal in weather like this.

We pondered the downside of spending another hour in wet, chilly clothes. But we could see a courtyard and a garden through the gate, and I loved the atmosphere. A few more people trickled in to line up behind us. Eventually, a very British woman came to the gate and allowed us to move inside where it was dry. We stayed in line, and the volunteers checked us in with lots of kindness and not much efficiency. The building had been a rectory, and was now a maze of stairs and open balconies and low doorways designed for concussions. There was a serviceable, practical dormitory for about twenty pilgrims, and a yard that the volunteers told us was lovely for sunning. I couldn’t imagine this town in bright daylight.

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Somehow, this is my only picture of Rabanal, taken from the balcony of Refugio Gaucelmo.

Afternoon tea, they informed us, was at 4:00. The monks would sing vespers at 7 just across the street.

I wasn’t just sold. I was in love.

The entire day had turned around.

I wanted to explore. I wanted to eat. Instead, we did what Eric called “the things.” We unpacked, showered, dried the things that were wet and washed the things that needed washing. And then, finally, it was time for soup.

I’d done a bit of exploring (okay, bathroom-hunting) while we waited for the Guacelmo to open, and had stumbled into The Bar. Thick stone walls, low-beamed ceilings, a huge fireplace, and SOUP — thick, hearty, hot seafood and vegetable chowders. The three of us settled on stools at a heavy wooden table with a bottle of local wine, a loaf of crusty white bread, and the best soup I can ever remember eating. We watched two older women, locals in long wool dresses and sensible shoes, climb up onto bar stools and gossip over glasses of beer. We watched new waves of pilgrims, still dripping and squishing, arrive. We felt delightfully at home.

The previous late nights, the interrupted sleep, and the hours of cold caught up with me, and when we were done I went off to take a nap. So I didn’t actually witness what happened next, although so many people told me about it that I can imagine.

The rain had finally stopped, and Eric and Emily went exploring. The air was still chilly, and so when they happened into a tiny village store, that just happened to have cheap wine, oranges, and cinnamon sticks, Eric’s plan was born.

Back in the communal refugio kitchen, they found more spices and a saucepan, and they set about making hot mulled wine.

The smell drifted through those twisted hallways and low-ceilinged staircases. Pilgrims, young and old, started to drift toward the kitchen. I imagine them like the cartoon characters, floating along the waves of delicious scents, led by their noses.

Eric and Emily, true to their natures and the spirit of the Camino, hosted quite the party in that Rabanal kitchen, going out twice more to buy more wine and oranges.

By the time I woke up, the whole building had become friends. The wine was the talk of the town, and the story traveled with us for days.

“Mulled wine is a winter drink, a holiday drink,” someone said. “But it was as cold as winter that day, and they made it feel like a holiday.”

We mulled wine again, a few days later, in La Faba. It was another tiny hillside town and we found ourselves in a steamy kitchen, waiting out another rainstorm. This time I got to see the magnet effect, the curiosity and happy memories brought by the smell of mulling spices.

The way the whole day could be turned around.
Last week, on Christmas Eve, when I’d been running around for days and was feeling overwhelmed, Eric pulled out a saucepan and filled our space with the smell of spices and warmth.

And the whole day turned around.

 

PS. What goes into stovetop mulled wine? Eric’s version is not an exact science by any stretch, but here’s what he suggests:

  • red wine
  • slices of orange
  • some OJ or cider
  • if available, some brandy
  • cinnamon sticks
  • allspice
  • cloves
  • anise
  • sugar

Let it simmer on the stove for a while, to mix the flavors.

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