Sunday, March 30, 2014

Day 18: to León

Five and a half hours of slogging through suburbia in grey drizzle. Enough said, I think.

FWIW Leon has the most beautiful cathedral.

Day 19: to Hospital de Orbigo

Just wrote a long post and then accidentally deleted it. Bugger.

In brief, and with apologies...

Last night: no sleep, excess snorers, stag dos and vindictive nuns who turn the lights off for only 7 hours and put us out onto the dark drunken streets of Leon way too early this morning

Today: lovely walking, long (37k) but good weather and snowy mountains ahead

Tonight: miraculous Eco hostel with my favourite people and a lovely veggie dinner promised

Happy Sunday!

Friday, March 28, 2014

Day 17: to Religios

OMG that was a weird and tough day.

Very amusing dinner last night - felt slightly like Fresher's week. For one thing, we met the Martin that our Lithuanian friend was thinking of. He is Swiss (and v entertaining). For another, we received a confession of undying love of Niall. You get the picture. A fair bit of wine was consumed.

Then a night of not only class A snoring but also night terrors from the elderly gentleman in the corner of the room.

Then what was supposed to be a medium length, remote walk across an  empty 'African' landscape (quoting the guidebook there). Quite pleasant scenery and weather and the bush was definitely a nice change from endless cornfields.

But then... We arrived in our planned destination at about 2. A very very old lady let us into the municipal hostel, explaining that we needed to bolt the door at night because the dogs come in to root through the rubbish... That was ALL OVER THE FLOOR! (It seems there is no hostel-keeper at present). After helping her throw out some rubbish we ventured a look at the beds. And at that point decided to walk on another 18k to the next town.

So, a jolly old 45k walk in total - not the longest I've ever done but the longest while wearing a 10k pack and  planning on walking again the next day! And the 18k was mostly on a beautiful old stoned Roman road. Historically impressive but hard on the feet.

 Other things have been weird today: I've been smoked on in both the bars I entered (never seen this before, the Spaniards seem to obey the ban), and plagued by enormous hairy caterpillars - sometimes alone and sometimes in strings of about ten. On the plus side I did meet the world's cutest dog, though his owner refused to let me take him to Santiago..

I'm gibbering. Time to drink, eat, sleep, repeat.

Thursday, March 27, 2014

Day 16: to Terradillos de los Templarios

Quite a tedious day, walking-wise. We started cold and frosty and ended cold and sunny. In between I've been hatted and gloved up all day and we gave up early, after about 26k. 

The terrain included the rather notorious Via Acquitana roman road - 12k of utterly straight flat gravel path. The most exciting thing that happened was a cheerful middle European waited by the side of the road for us to pass, explaining that he was waiting 'for some privacy to go to the bathroom'. Um, good luck with that...

Now in a nice albergue in a small ex-Knights Templar village with, what I predict will be two class A snorers (old Spanish men).

Time for some Kindle (and perhaps vino). More energy tomorrow I hope!

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Day 15: to Carrion de Los Condes

A long but ultimately satisfying day. One reason for the satisfaction is there was no rain, just bright windy sunshine. Bliss after the last couple of days. We met a South African lady last night who'd been on a preparatory course for the camino (in SA) in which she'd been told to take trainers not waterproof boots 'to avoid blisters'. Well, yes... But not much fun in rain or snow! She was rather horrified by all the cold and wet of the last few days. Hopefully she will have had a better day today.

We covered about 35k today which is also quite satisfying, and without any major foot breakdown. While there are always some small niggles (new and old) it's lovely to have mostly manageable feet now.

The landscape is a little East Anglian. With better weather today I could actually look out at the meseta and not just my feet or the rain streaming off my hat. It consists of long rolling cornfields and flat expanses. Then a long afternoon of canal and river paths, somewhat endless but beautiful and also Cam-like. Then finally a last hour stomping the long straight path next to the road. We had avoided the first 10k of said path due to the river detour. But it does provide some diversion - written on sequential path markers:
'I am'
-- sticker sadly missing---
'Luiblor 24/03' 

(Our Lithuanian friend? What was she thinking?!)

At present lying in a monastery dorm, empty and with absolutely no-one around. I hope they don't mind - I'm way too comfy to move right now.

Later: nuns, not monks, of St Augustine, and they gave us each a paper star and a blessing before checking us in. What nice ladies. 

We had to each say why we are doing the camino. This seems to be kind of a personal question - people ask you it surprisingly rarely. The usual answers vary widely in frankness from the proximate ('because I had some holiday to roll over') to super-personal (bereavements, cancers etc). I usually just say that I don't know but I always wanted to. Not deep but as truthful as I can get.

Tuesday, March 25, 2014

Day 14: to Itero de la Vega

The rain in Spain, let me tell you, falls mainly on the plain. Which, annoyingly, is exactly where I am.

The rain also fell mostly during an intense couple of hours in which we walked over the top and down the other side of a very big hill. Pretty much everything I own is now wet (in fact the driest is what I was already wearing). While the waterproof hat, gloves, coat and trousers all performed well, the backpack and waterproof cover were together not quite up to the forces of nature (ie gales and horizontal driving rain).

Anyway, that aside it's been a good day.

Now tucked up and drying out in a nice hostel / hotel with a belly full of pilgrim's special (multi egg and chip dinner). Also I just experienced my first 'live chat' (customer service via web chat) with the lovely Emma from Vodafone. No progress towards PAYG but at least I have stopped my current account from being cut off. I hope.

Day 13: to Hornillos

The first day of bad weather - not bad really for day 13 in March! Leaving Burgos we sadly said goodbye to Naill who's heading home for a wedding in a couple of days, and may or may not be back out to walk the remainder of the camino in the autumn.

The walk out of Burgos was less painful that the way in but not scintillating. It also involved a crazy 2km circular detour in order to cross over a large-ish road. EU money well spent.

After a couple of hours we hit the start of the meseta, the high downland that is to be our unremitting landscape for several days now. Only problem was that the rain also started, in earnest. While satisfying on the one hand (finally used every last piece of kit I am carrying - thanks Dad the hat is awesome) - it was also a bit unrewarding in terms of view and general dreariness.

Civilisation, ie an open bar, came just in time for lunch and a drying-off. After which Gary took an executive decision to stay here, and I was (I am slightly ashamed to admit) persuaded mostly because the loud Italian girl was also in the bar and told us she was not staying here but walking on to the next albergue.

Cue a very steamy afternoon in a densely packed kitchen with a raging wood burner and the cumulative wet kit and washed socks of a dozen friendly pilgrims. Including a crazy Korean priest who has just insisted the albergue owner open up the church so he (the Korean) can say mass. 

Sunday, March 23, 2014

Day 12: to Burgos

We awoke this morning to below freezing temperatures and some snow settled from the shower last night. The first part of the walk was up over a high pass, beautiful but cold enough even when togged up to the nines. I was glad that the path was no less obviously delineated.

After an excellent coffee stop a long hard slog into Burgos through 10k of endless outskirts, and a little more snow/hail falling. 

Burgos centre is lovely. The crowning feature is the enormous ornate cathedral. Not entirely to my taste (a lot of gilt, as well as guilt) but some beautiful stonework and sculpture.

In truth I am really tired today, I think because the cold weather makes things a bit more of a slog. Unfortunately tomorrow is a non-negotiable 31k with rain and cold forecast (in our faces). We shall see what the camino brings.

In the meantime I have snuck off to the almost entirely-empty second floor of the albergue where hopefully a restive night awaits!

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Day 11: to Atapuerca

A really classic camino day. 

Last night was great fun - communal dinner for 6 with a whole lot of fairly inaccurate translation going on, mostly by me. We were one Dutchman (speaking English and French), two Irish, one Spaniard (speaking Spanish and French) and one Argentinian (Spanish only). And me. The slightly drunken descriptions of the historical oppression of the Irish people / Spanish minorities were slightly beyond my language skills. As was the translation of the Irish saying that the quiet pig eats his fill. Anyway, everyone seemed perfectly happy to monologue away in his / her own language while agreeing vociferously with the others...

Would have been a lovely night's  sleep too, if not for the snoring of the  Argentine. I pretended he was a large friendly tiger purring. It seemed to help my mental state, if not the actual decibel level.

A beautiful walk today in much colder weather, including odd spots of rain and hail at the end. There was a fantastic 12k stretch of path through ancient broadleaf woods and then high sandy pine forest, cold and sunny, no-one around. These are the 'montes de oco' (goose mountains) - notorious in the old days for pilgrim-preying bandits. 

On through small villages to our current location in Atapuerca, famous for ancient hominid finds. As yet I have been unable to find out how / whether we can visit, but we may have more luck this evening when everything opens post-siesta.

In the meantime we have a (currently) quiet and small room in a nice albergue. The large loud spanish group is also here but, thankfully, in a different room.

More unsettled weather forecast but wonderfully my feet now fit inside my boots again so the wet-weather sandals-and-socks problem is currently on hold. 

Later - there's apparently no wifi in this town so I shall post a day late anyway... Nice afternoon and evening playing rummy, 21 and one-card poker in a surprisingly busy bar, and then a communal dinner in the other albergue in town. Camino dinners can be strangely like business dinners when you're jetlagged - depending on the company they can be either super fun or an exercise in just feeding yourself while waiting for it to become a socially acceptable time to go to bed.

It snowed throughout dinner! As yet it's not settling but it's cold enough to  I think. Certainly strange when we're all a bit sunburnt from just a couple of days ago. Strange (and cold) experience to walk home through the slush in sandals.

Tomorrow the walk into Burgos, a big city by our standards. (Advance warning for the low-tech Jenny tracker!)

Friday, March 21, 2014

Day 10: to Villambistia

A rough night (as well as the usual snorers there were also 1am copulators, and a very enthusiastic 5am dance-of-the-flashlights), but, BUT - I am walking again.

In fact walking quite far, about 30 k. And this little miracle is due to a pair of Tevas that I picked up yesterday evening and that don't touch my dodgy toes at all!

In truth my toes feel a lot less dodgy now, though I haven't actually looked at them under their big white bandages. I also failed to have a nurse look at them this morning since the health centre had moved locations and I couldn't face finding the new one all the way across town.

Not sure Tevas were entirely designed for long distance walking, and they may not be a solution tomorrow, as rain is due. But today they have enabled excellent progress through the cornfields of Castilla Y Leon.

A fairly long but peaceful day of dusty tracks across cornfields and small tumbleweed villages. We lunched in the sunny square in Belorado (enormous pork and pepper baguette) but, ears still ringing from last night, came on an extra 7k to a tiny albergue in the hope of a quieter night's sleep... I'll let you know.

Thursday, March 20, 2014

Day 9: to Santo Domingo - on bike!

Last night I had a little bit of camino magic happen. I was feeling less ill but still with crazily throbbing toes, when I saw an advert in the entrance of my hostel. For 35 euros this chap would hire me a mountain bike, then wherever I got to by the end of the day, deliver me my backpack and take the bike back. After a few text messages I met up with the lovely Jorge who sorted me out with a bike, a secure resting place for it overnight, and a backpack pickup for this morning. I got the impression that Jorge had better things to be doing with his time (he is guiding a group a few towns away) but did it anyway just because he is nice. Thank goodness for the kindness of strangers.

One of the (many) 'mystical' things people say is that the camino will provide whatever it is you need. Well,  today it provided Jorge!

Before leaving this morning I revisited the nurse, who rewrapped my toe, approved my plan, confirmed Jorge is a sweetheart, and told me that her 7-yr old daughter says she is going to marry Jorge's son. She also gave me instructions and a paper to obtain further nursing attention in Santo Domingo tomorrow morning. Hurrah for Salud Rioja, they seem amazingly efficient.

The toe, in case you're wondering, is still there. It's hard to judge change as everything is dyed yellow with iodine and the boot-pressure-factor is totally confounded by big white foam dressings. I'm not massively worried, but I'm also not going to be breaking Camino speed records any time soon.

Even aside from the relief of being back on the road, cycling was simply lovely. And on flat / downhill parts - so fast! (The uphills on gravel were killing, however).

The first section was through red-soiled Rioja vineyards with views of big snow-capped mountains to the south west. These mountains must be seriously high, they've been looming at us for several days (and laughing at us on roastingly hot afternoons). 

Morning coffee and pain au chocolat stop was on the pretty riverfront in Najera, next to a sign saying 'Fish without killing!' - nicely put.

Travelling at several times walking speed (downhill at least) gave me a chance to see how many pilgrims are actually walking each stage. My best guess at the moment would be about 15-20 per day. To me this seems a reasonable number - I definitely wouldn't want to do this in high season when I believe there can be several hundred (the albergue here, for example, sleeps 220).

Santo Domingo de la Calzada has a whole load of beautiful and historic buildings, albeit after several kms of industrial slog on the way in. I reached here in time for a very nice beer and salad in the sun. There are rainstorms forecast but, as yet, none emerging.

The accommodation options tonight are limited to a large monastery-based albergue or private hotels. There are a *lot* of people in this dorm... Overdue a bad night's sleep I guess.

Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Day 8: Grounded!

The fourth toe on my right foot is red and shiny at the bottom, and white at the top. It's also enlarged and very painful. And I feel a bit sick (and not just when I look at the toe!)

As such, 8.30 this morning saw me present myself to the doctors' surgery considerately situated just a few mins from my bed. The very efficient secretaries took my EHIC card and address and I was ushered through to a doctor immediately. He agreed that antibiotics were needed, and also a day off from walking.

Nothing to pay, no problem, come back first thing tomorrow so the nurse can strap you up before you walk on. The nurse also popped a few other blisters while she was at it - unlike St John's these guys clearly believe in the therapeutic benefits of a well-popped blister.

I can't imagine a foreign walker in the UK would get such prompt, efficient attention. Hurrah for the EU and socialist medicine! 

An enforced rest day sadly means goodbye to my Irish walking buddies (who have been great fun) but hello to a lazy and sunny day in a pretty old town. 

I'm hoping that 24 hours of penicillin will put me back on my feet (literally), and that I will gradually make up the distance. Have to say the rest of me is not complaining at all about a day off and as I am already installed in a v nice hotel I see little reason to move. Kindle, snoozing and refuelling are now the major aims for the day.

On that theme, one of the cardinal features of the Camino is that it reduces everything down to such a small number of basic variables: where can I get food, where can I get water, where am I going to sleep tonight. (How much pain am I in is - we joke - the only other variable). 

Walk, eat, sleep, repeat. People do this for all kinds of reasons, and have all kinds of different experiences, but at the heart of it, it's just this very simple goal of moving forward every day which is surprisingly addictive. 

I find myself very grateful for IB-enforced Spanish lessons. Two beers please is manageable with sign language the world over, but when you need to talk to a doctor or to understand multiple options then even the relatively poor Spanish I have has been hugely helpful. (Note to self: try to learn at least some German before tackling the Danube).

In other news: just discovered one reason for the hazy glow on my photos is a protective piece of cellophane over the camera on my phone. So, with apologies to Anna, life may look crisper from now on!

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Day 7: to Navarrete

A day that started well, and ended up featuring in my top five most painful sporting endeavours*.

After a surprisingly good sleep and no cut throats, we left the hostel of craziness early. At 7, our booked breakfast time, no landlady was in sight (last seen knocking back the wine) so we hit the road on an empty stomach but with the promise of a good stop 10k in. 

The first 10k really were beautiful, a drier, scrubbier landscape with lots of little ups and downs, and the full(ish) moon setting as the sun rose.

At Viana we breakfasted well and pushed on towards Logrono, a big city and the capital of La Rioja. 

Now the first error was that I commented how my feet had definitely turned the corner and felt much better than previous days. The second was stopping for lunch and taking off my shoe to do some (I thought) preventative surgery. I'm not sure exactly what has gone wrong but suddenly my shoes seem several sizes too small...

Let's just say the three hours on from Logrono won't feature at all in my photos. I felt nauseous with pain at one point and it took a whole of the This American Life podcast to get me through. For the record I think it was 33.3 k total.

We're in a private room tonight. I'm not sure I'm going to be leaving it any time soon. 

*which makes me worry that previous records may fall on this trip... Though hopefully not the Thames Path challenge or Finnish cross country skiing ones. Cos if so I won't be getting up the next day.

Monday, March 17, 2014

Day 6: to Torres del Rio

Last night ended with four small beers in rapid succession, some comedy sign language regarding available sandwich fillings (the chicken breast was good), an argument between Arnie the Angry Estonian and the barman regarding three unpaid-for beers... An early night but I woke two hours later slightly drunk and dehydrated and also quite disorientated. 

Nonetheless, today has been a really perfect day. The forecast was hot hot hot so I took the first 12k alone and early, through an amazing landscape of greens and browns, with no humans or habitation to be seen. In the very pretty town of Los Arcos I found both, and indulged in a delicious third breakfast of coffee and fresh pain au chocolat in the town square.  

The distance options for today were roughly 20 or 30k and with the heat and yesterday's fatigue I was happy to settle for the shorter. My feet also seem a bit happier, especially since I finally found an open pharmacy and have some new and evil-looking antiseptic. (This interaction involved a further bout of comedy sign language regarding which particular bits of the boys' anatomy needed soothing cream. There are things my Spanish just can't deal with).

Torres del Rio seems like it would be a very peaceful place, but right now a fair bit of high-season-preparation is going on. Specifically, there are workmen reversing dumper trucks down the steep narrow street at impressively high speed. We get the impression that we are possibly just days ahead of the hordes - this very small town for example has three auberges open. I am extremely glad if that is the case - I fear the hordes will catch us nearer to Santiago and Easter but right now it's certainly nice to have only a handful of people around.

Our auberge seems quite dodgy but has the benefit of being cheap (17 euros including breakfast, dinner, and all the wine you can drink) and, surprisingly, a small pool. Though given it's in the middle of the courtyard and I have no swimsuit I don't think I'll be taking advantage. Hopefully not of much wine either as we hope for a long day tomorrow.

The afternoon has been dedicated to sunning ourselves with cold drinks in the square and watching the local entertainment, which mostly consists of two old ladies. One taps her cane to an internal beat, and occasionally takes out her full set of false teeth; the other is wearing a fleece dressing gown and slippers as she wanders the village.

A word on photos: they don't do this landscape justice! It's so beautiful, but the scale and the subtlety of the landscape don't come across on an iPhone sized screen. But trust me, Navarra is a lovely place.

Sunday, March 16, 2014

Day 5: to Villamayor de Montjardin

Last night's albergue really was the bees knees - relaxing and half empty: not only was no-one sleeping above me but no-one in the next bunk over either. I slept so well and was amazed that the first clock chimes I heard all night were at 7 this morning. Also a stonking meatball based supper and a mass that I could almost fully understand... turned out to be because the priest was Polish! And there was me thinking that going to mass was really helping my Spanish..

Anyway, onwards. It felt like quite a tough day today though <25k I think. Largely nice walking and with half the population out strolling or rotivating their vegetable plots (it's Sunday). Also had a nice coke break in the surprisingly large and pretty old town of Estella and then a free spot of wine at the monastery wine fountain at Irache. While free wine is always welcome, in the heat of the day I was actually more interested in the water fountain, to the amusement of a little old lady who kissed me on both cheeks and wished me luck. People are vey sweet like that, you get a 'buen camino' about half the time from passers-by and sometimes more - we had mints pressed on us by one chap just before Pamplona.

 We weren't entirely sure if this albergue was open (it is, and it's brand new and immaculate, with a Scandinavian feel) and for a while debated whether we would be able to manage another 12k to the next town. At lunchtime I thought yes. I was wrong.