Monday, April 28, 2014

Camino post-script

I've just been on a weekend retreat at a Buddhist centre in north Wales. I booked it before leaving for the camino, but funnily enough being there really seemed to help assimilate the walking experience for me. Also coincidental (or maybe not) that of the 4 or 5 people I talked to there about the camino, one had previously done it and another is probably going to this summer. I'm clearly not the only non-Christian happy to skirt the boundaries of Catholicism for the sake of a wonderful walk.

The theme of the retreat was 'body and breath: earth and air' and - sparing you the most airy fairy stuff - a lot of it was about feeling grounded in reality, in touch with the earth and air and appreciative of the amazing job the body does. There were people there who talked of feeling very cut off from the earth and air, the natural world. I certainly suffer from this when living the Cambridge rat race and it was my first urge when planning this year - just 'be outside more'.  So it was interesting for me to note, though not surprising I suppose, that, post-Camino, I feel wonderfully grounded in the outdoors.  My usual feeling of desperation to be outside whenever the sun shines wasn't there at all, which is most helpful when trying to sit for a long period of meditation! 

There were also a couple of people (meaning women - it was a women-only retreat) who talked about feeling some degree of disgust at their bodies, in general, and as we did specific exercises. This is not something I particularly suffer from (I just make sure to avoid looking in the mirror from behind) but again, post-camino I do have a newfound respect for the sheer functionality of my body in carrying me all that way. Especially feet. My feet are amazing! One of the leaders read a great poem about appreciating legs (the bits I can remember are about how edible babies' legs look and also how much the author loves prepubescent girls' calf-less legs - and I didn't have much luck googling it based on those two clues). I am not blessed with shapely legs but again, wow, they worked hard for me. It is the greatest instrument you will ever have, as the eponymous (to this blog) saying goes.

The other camino-related theme for me was about living with human contact. Both in the sense of living communally, and also with respect to human touch. The Buddhists - especially of the female variety - are a whole lot more considerate to live with than fellow pilgrims, though I guess people are also more minded towards friendly cooperation when on retreat than when walking and/or in tougher conditions. I am by nature a lone wolf but surprisingly I actually enjoyed the communal chores etc this weekend (and after the Camino was completely immune to the shared rooms). The world seems to divide into people who feel really uncomfortable during the extended periods of silence and those who are glad of them. I suspect these map vaguely onto those who were happiest walking alone and those who avoided it at all costs. Anyway, interesting to me that I enjoyed the company when balanced with solitude, and made me think that whatever the future holds I would consider cohabiting again.

The other funny experience of the weekend was a couple of activities that made you physically work with a partner. Some of these were quite innocuous (rubbing their ankles like you were trying to light a fire) but the last exercise had us lying down, pressed back to back in pairs. Cued lots of comments and a few tears from people grieving or missing children or partners. Definitely an odd though pleasant sensation to do this with a total stranger / fellow human being.

All of this feels slightly relevant as I am house-sitting alone in Wales this week with only cats, dogs and horses to talk to and cuddle. Next week I hope to be heading off on my next adventure which will again require my awesomely-useful body to carry me, and on a journey which I suspect will be a much more solitary time.

View from my Welsh bed - not sure that humans can really be top of the reincarnation chain given what a good life these cats lead...

Wednesday, April 16, 2014

Day 36: to Muxia

When St James returned to Spain he put ashore in Muxia, the next peninsula north of Finisterre. His boat was turned to a rock and a lovely little shrine and then church was built on the spot. That's why the ultimate ultimate end of the camino is in Muxia.

Last Christmas Day, lightning struck the church and it burnt down. And then the rock that was St James' boat cracked in two and fell into the water. Or something like that.

Anyway, the walk from Finisterre from Muxia is absolutely gorgeous. Teresa's feet had had enough so I planned to walk alone, but instead met a new Australian on his 4th camino and ended up walking with him.

Muxia town looks like an outpost of Iceland (at least in my head), it's a modern fishing port and the speciality is dried congor eel (there are signs for the municipal eel drying racks!).

The end of the headland, and church, is still beautiful despite the Christmas Day wrath. 

Despite a non-functioning phone (AGAIN!!) Teresa and I met up with no problem and are happily enjoying some food and drink before heading over to watch the sunset.

I am a little bit heartbroken that it's all over. 

Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Day 35: to Finisterre

The end of the world. So beautiful, so happy to be here, and so sad that it's all essentially over (tomorrow's walk is 'just for fun').

I can't write anything very coherent so instead, for one night only, I shall photoblog: 


After about 15k we get our first sight of the sea (imagine you're a medieval pilgrim and you've never seen it before..)

Teresa and I are still full of energy at this point...

Having come down a massive hill we walk along the coast road and through fishing villages. Here's a cemetery with a view...

Teresa's got sore feet but they're enormously helped by my (patent pending) lunchtime cure-all: extra strength ibruprofen plus two glasses of wine.

The coast here is so stunning. There's a small forest fire just off the camino and we see a helicopter scooping up water from the bay and dumping it on the fire.

The town of Finisterre sits next to the most beautiful beach. We rashly abandon our boots and walk barefoot. Until we realise we do need to hit the road again after all. Oops.

We locate our hotel above the harbour and Teresa opts for a nap while I walk on, rucksack-free, to the end of the world.

The final camino marker: 0.0 km to go, only the lighthouse beyond.

My feet enjoy the view at the end of the world. (All six-and-two-half toenails of them.)

It has been the most beautiful day. Don't know how I'm going to cope with normality after this!

Monday, April 14, 2014

Day 34: to Oliveiroa

Impressively, Teresa and I were up at 6.45 - as were the nuns in Santa Clara convent next door, if the church bells were anything to go by.

This early start was so we could backtrack on the bus I took last Thursday, and return to Negreira on the Finisterre camino. It was another beautiful Galician day, both in landscape and weather (roasting). I drank the whole of my water supply for the first time, which I think is 2 litres. Teresa did brilliantly given both the heat and the baptism of fire that a 33km walk is on your first day out!

Silage making is in full progress and the whole day reeked - either of cut grass, hot eucalyptus and pine, gorse, and when nothing else, dairy and muck spreading. We were mostly in tiny hamlets (only one bar stop!) and as usual the average age of the people working looked to be about 75. Some of whom wore the most astonishing flatbrimmed sunhats with a ribbon... and sometimes whatever they were carrying (eg a shopping bag) balanced on top. 

I really hope there's a generation of Galicians earning big bucks in some city somewhere, that will come back to the countryside and take over the farms and renovate the old houses. Sadly I very much doubt it.

Plenty of other pilgrims around but almost all are Spaniards, enjoying their Easter holidays. I've used Teresa as an excuse to give up entirely on dormitory life, and tonight we're in a very nice rural guest house attached to its own bar and restaurant... I can't wait for my first beer and given Teresa's tough first day I don't imagine we're going to stray far!

PS- mum what is this purple stuff?

Pps - my starter! ('Lentils')

Days 31-33 (ish) - in Santiago

Lovely long weekend with my friends Libby & Rich.  We stayed in a 5th floor apartment in a very old very central building and this had amazing views over the rooftops.

We spent Friday in an around Santiago, mostly in and around cafes in fact. At evening mass the botafumeiro - the giant incense burner - was indeed swung and it was a pretty awe-inspiring spectacle. One can't help but imagine the consequences if the rope snapped - heavy silver receptacle full of hot embers travelling at high speed over the heads of a thousand pilgrims... 

Saturday we took a day trip by train to A Coruña, on the north coast. This is a big and flourishing modern city, but with a long history, including a roman- built lighthouse. Very impressive and a worthy world heritage site. We did a lot of wandering around the seaside and then joined the locals who were all out having a Saturday seafood lunch in the narrow old town streets. I really will stop eating octopus soon.

Sunday we fulfilled Libby's ambition to at least have coffee in Santiago's Hostal Dos Reyes Catholicos - once the hospital for ailing pilgrims (which I imagine most were, by this stage), now a parador (state-run 5 star hotel). As it's Palm Sunday the Easter parades are beginning in earnest, with the Klu Klux Klan headgear of the cofradias as sinister as always. We then walked out of town to visit the City of culture, a new and enormous white elephant situated on one of the hills overlooking the city. I can't imagine how it got built (mostly... About a quarter is still unfinished and now never will be) but it's as astonishing up close as it is from afar. It had a nice free art exhibition on, and also hosts concerts etc but seems almost entirely unused. 

Teresa arrives tonight, and tomorrow we walk on towards Finisterre.

Thursday, April 10, 2014

Day 30: to Negreira

Onwards! After a massively stormy night I left Santiago mid morning, expecting a drenching. Instead the skies cleared and I received an absolute roasting.

Heading west (as ever) I took the extension of the camino towards Finisterre. This continues to be impeccably waymarked but is clearly much less trod - at least as indicated by the lack of cafes en route!

The countryside felt completely tropical, with palms and banana flourishing and even the odd cactus (despite the notoriously high rainfall). The humidity arising from the earlier downpours plus very strong sunshine only added to the impression of being in the Caribbean. The fecundity of Galicia continues to amaze me - the animals are up to their knees in grass (I saw silage being cut today) and the gardens are just dripping with magnolia, camellia, wisteria and azalea blossom.

It was unbelievably beautiful and peaceful walking, even though I was pouring sweat. You could bury me in this bit of north west Spain and I would consider myself lucky.

Due to some slightly complex friend-logistics, I stopped at Negreira and caught a bus back to Santiago. Libby & Rich arrive tonight for a long weekend which I am really looking forward to. And the last section of my camino will resume on Monday morning (..with a bus back to Negreira), this time accompanied by my lovely ex-landlady Teresa. 

Lots of people I know now in Santiago - and rumour has it that at tomorrow evening's mass the incense burner will swing. (Those two things unrelated, I hasten to add).

Wednesday, April 9, 2014

Day 29: Watching pilgrims

Watching pilgrims walk into the cathedral square is a bit like the final part of Love Actually, with all the pictures from the arrivals hall at Heathrow. There's a fair bit of tiredness, confusion and a variety of other emotions. At this time of year, pilgrims are outnumbered by school parties of teenagers, being herded in and out of the cathedral museum on timed tickets. Between these, university students moving between classes and local residents going about their business, the newly arrived seem dazed that in this moment that is so significant to them, the world just carries on. There's no welcoming committee, in fact you can't even enter the cathedral through the main door at present because of restoration work. So what greets you, to the soundtrack of Gallician bagpipers busking, is a somewhat mundane scene and at the same time, a stream of moments that will, by someone, be remembered forever. Through the confusion, whether under- or overwhelmed*  what you see mostly is a realisation of pride in this thing that they have done. I know that walking 800km is inherently pointless. But at the end it does feel like something.

Sit in the square long enough and everyone begins to look a bit familiar. You recognise the red trousers of the short girl you followed up that hill in the rain, the bow-legged 'chafing' walk  of the other girl she's with. People that are really limping are mostly unknown - shorter-distance folk whose blisters are peaking after 100 or so km. The more comfortable looking pilgrims, those who walk freely and are muddy and a bit faded - those are the ones I'm most likely to have spent a night or two with.  

You also see the slightly stiff walk of those who arrived yesterday, now partially transformed by a shower, a good night's sleep and some semblance of civilian clothes. Those who have just arrived keep their rucksack on even as they squat down for a better photo angle. Those who have been without it for a few hours sit down and put their feet up as often as possible. All are dismayed that the sun is behind the cathedral in the morning, ruining the victory photos.

* just for Ruth 'but can you just be whelmed?' 'I think you can in Europe..'

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

Day 28: to Santiago de Compostela

The end of the camino - though not the end of my trip. Awakened early by fellow pilgrims we set off into the dawn, just like on day 1. It was an easy and relaxed walk in, and the weather obliged with a beautiful bright sunny morning. Nonetheless odd as always to suddenly find yourself in a busy (and in this case tourist-heavy) city.

We checked in with the pilgrim's office to obtain our compostelas (official certificates) and then after a quick lunch Gary headed off to the airport. He's been such a great travelling companion and it's odd to say goodbye to someone you've spent so many hours with and may never see again.

I now have a couple of days of solitude which is going to be very strange after a month of 24/7 human companionship with all its joys and pains! To assist I have a small but perfectly formed room in a very central guesthouse, perfect for a day of gentle unwinding and reorientation.

You'll laugh but I really did well up on entering the cathedral. It's a beauty, and it is always touching to see prayer and earnest devotion going on amidst the noise of renovations and tourists taking photos. The huge incense burner which hangs from the ceiling is only swung on special occasions these days, but was originally used to defumigate and overwhelm the smell of pilgrims' bodies every day at mass. Even stationary it's quite a sight, as is the silver figure of Saint James which you sort of hug from behind. 

I have precisely two goals for the next 24 hours: to do something about my toenails, and to send my physio a postcard telling him I made it!

Monday, April 7, 2014

Day 27: to O Pedrouza (Arca do Pino)

Only 20km to go, albeit after another day in waterproofs. Tomorrow, Santiago!

Quite an easy day today, about 33k through more eucalyptus forests and with lots of indulgence breaks including cake and strawberries from a help-yourself farm stand.

Despite feeling some sense of achievement that the end is near, today has been rather humbling. First of all we passed a one-legged pilgrim, then we twice passed a multi-generational pilgrimage with granny carrying a rucksack and mum carrying an infant. Most exciting of all we finally caught up with the source of the increasingly-fresh horse dung that we've been following for days. Not horses in fact but a pair of donkeys, accompanied by two humans, a dog, an a teeny tiny puppy.  The most amusing cavalcade I'd seen since Navarette where I saw a pilgrim on a bike pulling a trailer full of kids and being towed by a dog on a lead.

As we get closer the quality of albergue actually seems to improve - this one is busy and I fear noisy (Italians) but has mood lighting, relaxing music, and a little sanctuary in the middle. It also seems mandatory at this point to get disposable sheets and pillow case included - a weird idea in a country that seems very eco-friendly but perhaps there is little energy difference overall between that and laundering sheets. 

The eco-friendliness is particularly noticeable with respect to showers and electricity. The showers here for example are warm and strong but only work while you lean on the button. The lights in all bathrooms are on timers and go off when no motion is sensed -- sometimes quite alarming to be plunged into pitch black while happily thinking beautiful thoughts on the loo... One place we stayed combined both feats - the motion sensor didn't detect motion in the shower, so both water and lighting stopped every ten seconds or so. Most disconcerting.

This town feels frontier-like. There are no further stops till Santiago so basically everyone is forced to stay in what would otherwise be a small village on the side of a busy road. 

I'm so excited that this is (hopefully) my last night in a dorm! There has been enough communal living for a while...

Banking on reaching Santiago early afternoon tomorrow. Weird to be reaching the end... But my feet at least are ready for it!

Sunday, April 6, 2014

Day 26: to Melide

A 40k day but - bliss - no waterproofs! Perfect walking weather in fact, with some sun and some overcast and little wind. More rain is due... but it was so lovely to be jacket-free for a day.

More rural Galicia - now also some pine and eucalyptus forests, and a bit of heathland, but mostly just lovely green lanes and ancient farmyards.

The morning was somewhat littered with fellow pilgrims and coachloads of teenagers, but we lost them all at our lunch stop (Palais de Rei) where the municipal hostels were filling up fast. We still had another 15k to cover, and it was a much more peaceful afternoon as a result.

I forgot to mention one crucial ingredient of Galician farms yesterday: dogs. The average farm has 2 or 3 fenced/chained working dogs, plus one or two small, friendly, pets. In fact the average household seems  to have both of those as well. I could make a great calendar 'cute dogs of the Camino' (like 'cats of Greece' or indeed 'bridges of the Camino', which I actually saw yesterday). Anyway, fair to say as well as this whole trip being enabled (sort of) by my non-dog-owner status, it has definitely confirmed my need of one. Small, scruffy, and friendly.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

Day 25: to Portomarin

One side effect of comfy beds and quiet private rooms is that it's just so hard to get going, relative to smelly dorms and early morning flashlight-and-rustle shuffles...

Once up we walked the two hours into Sarria at a reasonable lick. It's quite a large town and notable for being the last place you can start and still receive credit for a 'full' pilgrimage (>100k). As such it's a little excessively pilgrim-themed... 

We followed a school trip's worth of teenagers out of town, overtook them and then spent the afternoon meandering lovely small Galician lanes. Could easily be rural Cornwall, or Wales. Here's what you need to be a Galician farmer: many falling-down moss-covered barns. One brand new building roofed in the proper style: massive rounded scale-like slates and a top ridge formed by interlocking slates with edges like dragons tails. Multiple small old tractors and one immaculately kept ancient and tiny car (eg Renault 4). A flourishing camellia. A traditional upright Galician grain store (see photo - designed to keep rats out and your annual crop of maize in). Some chestnut trees. A small number of beautiful cows, like overgrown Guernseys but with horns, and possibly also a couple of goats. A line of brassicas around the edge of every field, regardless of what's in it.

Amazingly, in 9 out of 10 hamlets there's no attempt to cash in on the **quarter of a million** hungry / thirsty pilgrims who walk through your farmyard each year.

(It's really noticeable today how many more people there are, both because we're getting near Santiago and because it's the weekend.)

Just before lunch we passed the 100km-to-go marker.  It's actually more like 105 (and good to know that Lubla still plans to see Martin soon...) - but either way we are getting close.

Portomarin, our destination for the day, is rather extraordinary - built in the 60s when they drowned the previous village for a hydro scheme. It's sort of a new version of a perfect Spanish town, if currently covered in Spanish teenagers. We headed for the quietest albergue we could find, which is full of Koreans instead - hopefully quieter than Spaniards and currently producing the most delicious smells in the kitchen!

Friday, April 4, 2014

Day 24: to Samos

Oh dear, this camino is turning a little bit decadent. Last night was the as-yet height of pilgrim luxury - and today I find myself again writing from and accidentally checked in to a lovely hotel... With a bath!

This morning was more cloud-based hiking, with little view and plenty of cold and it was several hours before we descended out of it. Lovely walking country and you can tell it must be beautiful when not in cloud. But hard work to be so wet all the time!

Things changed around lunchtime, when we stopped in Triacastela for a gorgeous lunch of caldo gallego (local potato and cabbage-based soup), octopus (sorry octopus) and paella. Yum. The local domino games were in full swing and it was hard to leave a warm fire and put clammy waterproofs on again.

Quite a feast to digest as well, and the last 10k of the day, through picturesque ancient tracks and tiny hamlets, was hard work despite the loveliness of the countryside. So when we overshot the intended albergue and had to pop into a nice hotel to ask directions.. The rest is history.

Coming down into the lower country puts us firmly back into spring. There were flowers even at the highest points (including a plethora of very cute, 2-3 inch tall daffodils) but down here the cows are grazing lush grass and it feels a lot less alpine.

Samos is famous for its enormous monastery, where there are sung gregorian prayers and masses for pilgrims. At present the attractions of the hotel (bar & fire & bath) are winning. We need to cover a lot of ground over the next few days so resting up is crucial (Allegedly).  It is more than possible to hit church overload on the camino, I estimate you pass 20 a day and I did already see the oldest on the route first thing this morning...

We're currently moving too fast to know many fellow pilgrims anyway, except the omnipresent Koreans, who are smoking outside every bar you enter, always incredibly cheerful, and somehow always five minutes ahead. The cheeriest of all told us he walked stages 2 and 3 together in 13 hours flat so that he could be sure to make it to the mobile phone shop in Pamplona before it shut on Saturday. That's a level of devotion to technology that I can only admire.

Talking of which, despite several interactions with Vodafone my phone has been cut off. Very annoying but hopefully resolvable when Libby & Rich come out. 

Day 23: to O Cebreiro

Another slightly epic day. As my guidebook is (again) drenched and drying on the radiator I don't actually know how far we came, but my guess is about 35km. 

Very definitely a day of three parts - a steamy start in the vineyards of El Bierzo, followed by about 20k of gentle uphill on the old national road. (That makes it sound bad - there is now a motorway in the sky, so the national road is both empty and peaceful and goes through loads of small, pretty hamlets with cowbell-wearing cows peacefully grazing).

The last two hours was a strenuous uphill slog, and coincided with several heavy periods of rain. I love that the local government of Castilla y Leon will build endless deviations so you don't have to look twice before crossing an empty road, but in other sections is happy for you to slip and slide for miles over bare rocks with rivers running down on crazy inclines...

Half an hour from our destination we gave up the battle against the rain and popped into a bar/albergue for a restorative slice of chocolate cake. The bar was full of mid-European blowhards talking shite (apologies) - this plus the extreme weather pushed us into taking a room in a nice hotel in O Cebreiro instead of battling for smelly-clothes-drying space at the hostel. 

Occasional glimpses when the clouds lifted suggested that the countryside here is absolutely beautiful. We are just (1k) into Galicia -  a Celtic region with bagpipes and a regional dialect that confuses me entirely. 

Must mention that last night's dinner was enlivened (!) by an 80-yr old Irish lady. She is using a bag-carrying service but walks at a pretty phenomenal pace. Impressive.

Headlines here: all about the rain!

And one for Dad - this is definitely where you need to come for a golden oldie. They are often to be seen lined up outside bars etc...