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Sounding out autumn on the Solway

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It’s quiet for now but the waves of Barnacles are close. Thousands of geese are migrating from the Arctic every day, settling on the Solway to escape the harsh Svalbard winter. The skeins speed overhead in a cacophonous cloud, swirling, unsettled, mad.  And when the deafening sky fades and the last outliers pass, an expectant stillness settles on the sands, fields and rivers. The next invasion is imminent and compulsively you scan the empty skies and listen for the elemental sounds of autumn. The long, languorous summer is over.

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Pilgrim breakfast in the Parador

P1050151The croissants were scrummy but Breakfast In The Parador wasn’t as grand an experience as you might imagine.

The splendid state hotel which now stands on one side of Santiago’s beautiful Cathedral Square was originally built in 1499 as a Hospital for pilgrims who travelled from all corners of Europe to pay homage to St James at the neighbouring Cathedral.

When they reached the end of their long journeys dirty, hungry and exhausted they were given food, drink, a bed for three days and – if they needed it – medical help. That tradition endured over the centuries but in the 1950s the hospital was converted to the swanky hotel that now attracts a prestigious clientele and fosters an air of indulgence and superiority.

Yet the custom of helping pilgrims who arrive in the city has been honoured in a token way by giving the frst 10 peregrinos who turn up each day P1050143a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. The rule is that you line up with your compostella as proof of your pilgrimage  (but minus your backpack) at the stable door  and wait to be led inside and manoeuvred swiftly through the smart quarters to a staff door which leads up a flight of stairs to the kitchens.

We stood in a humble line beside stacks of plates and trays of semi-prepared food as waiters whisked past balancing trays and  contemptuous sneers. I can’t imagine a British hotel kitchen allowing half a dozen random people to hang around near uncovered food, but it was a fascinating insight into continental hygiene standards.

It was also an insight into how it must feel to be on the receiving end of charity. We could all have afforded to go into the old town to buy our breakfasts at a cafe but chose to experience the medieval tradition as part of our camino. Maybe the staff are overworked or just tired of people turning up in their kitchens three times a day, but sadly the token “charity” wasn’t P1050152dispensed with speed, grace or even a smile.

Yet nothing was lost. The pastries and coffee were good and, as always on the camino, it was the multilingual conversation between strangers that was the memorable part of the half hour we spent in the Pilgrim’s Dining Room at the top of the back stairs of Santiago’s posh Parador.

 

Stretching the miles to Muxía

P1050048The walk to Muxía was long, lush and memorable for its scents. Wild fennel grew abundantly along the borders of the paths when we finally tore ourselves away from Finisterre, after waiting for the sun to rise, admiring John’s freshly created Camino tattoo, checking in at the supermerado for fruit and bread, and saying “hasta luego” one last time to old friends about to scatter across the world. We walked on through the haze of aniseed. It conjured up incongruous images of Pernod in smoky Parisian cafes.

In the deep thick woods and on farm tracks there was the moist autumnal morning scent of ferns, then freshly cut wood, stacked and guarded by dogs at a sawmill. I saw more large dogs on this stretch than any other, and they were often loose and haughtily territorial. We eyed one another suspiciously.

And then suddenly a familiar smell from childhood; the imprinted aroma of sodden hay that’s been lying in the field too long. It was a hazard of Highland summers but seemed impossible in this climate, yet there it lay, flat and dark in shady rotting rows.

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I’d read that this extension of the Camino was poorly marked but I think someone must have just been out with a yellow paint spray because the arrows were strong and clear, all the way to Lires, and the solitary  cafe that was midway on the 30km route. It was just as well I’d had no breakfast because the tortilla served on a huge bocadillo would have fed three – generously. There must have been at least six eggs involved in its creation. I gave it my best try.

I loved the walk over moorland and through the woods but near the end of the long day our route joined the main road and skirted the beautiful Lourida beach where pilgrims were jumping from sand dunes and paddling in waters that are too treacherous for swimming. It felt like a long, weary haul on the hot tarmac through the outskirts of town to find the tourist office where old ladies knitted and another compostella was granted with evidence of stamps from my pilgrim passport. The best hostel in town is Bella Muxia and just beside it is A de Lolo restaurant which serves the poshest pilgrim grub I’ve ever come across! The wine is good too.

But now we’ve reached the end of the road and will have to get a bus back to Santiago tomorrow. There’s still another sunrise to look forward to in the morning  though, maybe up on the rocky hill above the town, and the legendary stone boat down by the sea to explore. It’s not over yet.

And at the end of the road… the Fisterra sunset

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The complimentary churros served with our cafe con leche in one of Cee’s town centre cafes probably slowed us down this morning, after the initial sugar rush had passed. That, and meandering around the colourful market, choosing fresh fruit to eat on the road to Finisterre.

I’d imagined, since we were already at the coast, that it would be a simple stroll along the beach to the end of the world. How naive. I should have learned long ago that when any route has  an opportunity to gain height, it does, and on the Camino you don’t consult the map, you just follow the yellow arrows. They took us upwards, to high vantage points, through Corcubión’s medieval streets and up again to finally catch sight of Finisterre.

I tied my boots to my pack once we clambered back down and reached the beach, and like the pilgrims ahead of me waded barefoot the length of Playa Langosteira, all the way to the edge of town and the first bar, where a cerveza was already poured and waiting. We had arrived.

The hostel we found looked a bit bedbug friendly but, feeling reckless, we stayed nevertheless then lined up for our Compostellas in the pilgrim office, ate, drank and set off again, up another hill in the dusk to the legendary lighthouse, past statues of pilgrims, crosses and all the commercial paraphernalia of a tourist hotspot.

But as the sun started to sink it wasn’t hard to find a quiet rock out on the headland to sit and savour the experience.

 

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When the last rays sank into the water there was spontaneous applause. The five amigos hugged when we found one another then we walked – one limping – back down the hill to celebrate the sun, life and the adventure.

 

Resting at the Riego do Nievas, the River of Snows

IMG_2423This has been a day of days.

Clear blue skies, remote paths and a landscape of rivers, woods and wild moorland lay ahead this morning, and the reward at day’s end was the promise of eventually reaching the sea.

I had some stunning Spanish horses and their riders for company  for a while in the morning and picked up pace to match their speed until they cantered away onto the high moors. I enjoyed their scent, the sense of tradition, the dogs at their heels and the sound of their hooves on the track (not to mention the conversation with the swarthy Spaniard on his steed!) but loved the silence even more when they moved on and I became lost in the landscape.

The heat was tiring and I eventually stopped to rest at an isolated spot named on the map as P1040928Ermita das Nieves (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows), a remote chapel and holy spring which is now officially my most favourite place on the entire Camino. I pulled off my socks and boots and lay down on the ancient shady stone steps of the chapel, and I thought how wonderfully simple life can be when you pare it all down. If I’m anxious or tired in future I’ll think of the hour I lay there in the warmth, feeling the peace of the hallowed stone seep into my bones.

Eventually I wandered into the field to dip my feet in the spring by the carved stone cross, which I hope wasn’t too sacrilegious? The waters supposedly have special powers which are most powerful on one day of the year, but fortunately not the day I was there, or it would have been much too busy. I felt revived but walked even more slowly after that, stretching the day and savouring this lonely part of the Camino.

P1040880A couple of German men I’d met the night before caught up and we stopped to fill our water bottles at another remote stone font, this one dedicated to St Peter the Martyr. The water here is reputed to cure aches and pains but more importantly it tasted cool and delicious on a hot, thirsty day.

There was still a long way to go but I was so reluctant to let the day end, I dawdled slowly through the high pine woods. And then, finally, when the views opened up, I caught my first glimpse of the sea almost 1000ft below.

A hot P1040940shower, reconnecting with friends, essential cervezas and that particular Camino pleasure of  washing clothes by hand all lay ahead in the seaside town of Cee, but my feet dragged for the final few kilometres and I constantly looked back up to the stone cross on the hill.

It might be a while before I’m physically back in Spain but it’s a comfort to know that the Ermita is firmly imprinted in my head and  I can return to that peaceful place anytime I choose.

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Misty morning and a dip in the río de Maroñas en route to Santa Mariña

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The first reward for delaying our departure till daylight came just minutes after we left Negreira.

Thick morning mist swirled and dipped around the church and graveyard of San Xulián up on the hill, luring us off the path and in through the gothic gates of the cemetery. The Galician style of stacking graves five storeys high means they tower dramatically above you while the plastic flowers and marble feel cold, regimented and forbidding. There’s very little green here, other than the wild flowers that have found a foothold, so they’re very different to the warmth of the graveyards I know. These feel much more final.

P1040849We spent an hour here, reading names on stones, enjoying the shady shapes and taking photographs, while the sun tried in vain to force its way through the mist.

When we left we climbed steadily upwards and looked down from the warmth of sunlight into misty valleys. There was no rush on wooded, gentle paths, but by the time we reached the first cafe in Vilasarío it was late and we had walked 13k so we were hungry for breakfast, a delicious Spanish omelette of onion and potatoes with bread and cafe con leche. I love the traditions of the camino, the immediate peeling off of socks and boots to let overheated feet breath and recover while you eat and drink. No one turns an eye.

We had decided to take four days to reach Finisterre and were meeting our friends in an albergue in Santa Mariña in the afternoon, but a couple of kilometres before we reached the village I turned a corner to find a bridge over the rio de Maroñas, and my friend Helen already IMG_2425paddling in the cool, clear water. Rucksacks and schedules were abandoned; we didn’t care if the next albergue was full and other pilgrims took our beds. The restorative power of icy water meant our legs and feet were fit for at least another 20k if necessary.

The old albergue in the centre of the village looked welcoming and the hospitalero was keen for our euros, but we searched the rooms in vain for our Irish and Australian friends and trooped off, a little disappointed, to the noisy place on the busy road where we were served cabbage and bean soup and will be sleeping in a low room with mouldy walls. Rehydrating on cervezas and an evening of laughter – not least about the dubious contents of the washing line – made up for the tastelessness of the poorest pilgrim menu I’ve ever encountered. Not everything on the camino is perfect but accepting what comes your way is part of this experience.

Maybe I won’t hear the snorers tonight…

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Rivers, ruins and bridges: the road from Santiago to Negreira

IMG_2368 There weren’t many pilgrims on the road this morning. Or maybe they’d all left early, leaving us trailing in their wake. My friends Doug, Pam and John certainly did. They intended to leave at 6am, they told us over paella in a restaurant in the old city last night, in order to get to Negreira before the heat of the afternoon. I felt only a momentary flicker of guilt at my decision to loiter until daylight then daunder alone through the outskirts of the city, past the park and along empty paths.

It was a stark contrast to the Camino Frances where there were always people alongside, ahead or behind, the crunch of a boot on gravel or soil, the sound of voices or a swish of a cyclist screaming Buen Camino. But I enjoyed the peace and the ruins of old buildings so close to the city,  the living decay of stones covered in ivy and roofs burst open by growing trees. The medieval Ponte Maceira over the river Tambre was an oasis. There were palm trees, a still heron on a stone, clear water still running through the ruins of a mill.

It was only  22k to Negreira but for a first day it was enough. My feet were hot and my legs ached for the final kilometre we trudged through the hard pavements of the town. Our Australian friends had P1040831secured beds in the Mesquita albergue and I chose an upper bunk as far as possible from the known snorers in our midst.Friendship can be a fickle thing when decibel levels transcend even the finest earplugs.

But before sleep we needed  food, drink and … exercise! So we meandered beyond the supermercados and modern buildings to find a shaded park and a disturbing sculpture of an emigre leaving his family, a symbol of the waves of emigration from Galicia all through the centuries. It was reminiscent of so many paintings of the Highland clearances, the woman clutching a baby, an older child tugging at his father’s clothes, imploring him to stay. But in this one the father’s legs appeared to be rotting and his skin hanging off. Maybe he’d have been advised to stay behind and let his much healthier looking wife set off to seek her fortune?

 

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