We cross fields of green on a red clay track that winds to the horizon’s azure sky. There’s no rain on Spain’s high plains this week, not in daytime at least, but in places the damp mud clings and is carried ahead, heavy on the boots of the trudging pilgrim army.
Four years on from my first trek across the endless flat Meseta, this is an unworldly time of morning mists, lush crops and diversions with new companions to unfamiliar villages.
In the empty landscape there’s just the constant heartbeat of boots on gravel; companionship over cervesa; secrets shared in a brief collision of lives that leave a deep imprint of sound and touch.
Walking away always takes longer.
We walked in single file, upwards through a maze of trees, strung out like pilgrims on the road to Santiago. Music whispered from the branches , light played on ruins and, once inside up crumbling steps, candles Read more
“How old are you?” laughed the woman as I ran to the swings.
Play time is preciously short these days. And the child I pushed on swings almost 30 years ago is rarely around to share it. So he indulged me. Sort of.
It was my birthday after all.
My new world of work requires me to wear shoes. Shoes! And makeup. I need to wash my face and put on clothes before I start typing every day. Hair? That’s still a bit deranged but there’s only so much preening I can handle.
There are no more early morning strolls along the coast, boiling the kettle for that third cup of coffee, putting on the washing machine, checking emails, Facebook, Twitter, a couple of news websites and WordPress before typing my first sentence. Then stopping mid way to have another quick peek at Twitter. My walking boots, fleeces and down jackets are currently… resting. Read more
I picked up the phone to share momentous news with my friend today.
A few days ago she was the first person I thought of when I emerged from the first job interview in …oh … 30 years. I knew she’d laugh and reassure me over my unpreparedness and my fashion faux-pas. She’d share the outrage over all the questions they didn’t ask and interrogate me on how I answered the ones they did.
Today she would have screeched with a mixture of horror and delight when she heard I was becoming an employee after decades on the run as a freelance. But she’d “get” it; the security, the excitement, the trepidation, the adventure. She’d offer wisdom. And she’d throw a party to celebrate. The fizz would fly.
We shared laughter for years. Occasionally tears. Often shopping. News; always news. She partied at my wedding and ensured that I survived when the marriage crashed. She came to my mother’s funeral and my sons graduation parties. We holidayed in Spain and Sweden. And we made radio programmes together, although on one occasion we were so distracted by one another’s company (or was it the previous night’s gin?) we forget to load the recording equipment and had to drive miles to retrieve it. There was fun. Always food, drink and a bed when times were tough or tremendous. Unsuccessful matchmaking. The best of friendship. Legendary stories.
She wasn’t at the end of the phone today. And nor would she have been on any of the other times in the past month when I’ve reached to share a snippet or some nonsense. Or check on grammar. There will be no Christmas carols round her piano this year, no Hogmanay get-together or walk on the beach at New Year. And I won’t hear her voice or her laugh ever again.
Life is different without Jean. I know she’d tell me – and everyone else who misses her – to get a grip. But we’re just a bit lost without her; our go-to friend who provided the sense and the sparkle.
And it will be a long time before I lose the urge to share.
I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.
And I enjoyed the little peppers as much as I loved the town of Padrón which is saturated in the legends of St James. It’s here he supposedly preached in Spain for the first time, in a quiet spot high up on the hill overlooking the town. I walked up to the simple statue and cross that marks the spot on the rock far away from the bustle of the town below. And I felt a peace there that’s been missing on most of this camino.
I felt it less in the Igrexa de Santiago church which houses another of the great legends, the original stone mooring post to which the boat carrying St James was tied at the quayside on the river. And, at the other end of the Saint’s story there’s a roadside monument showing the arrival of the his sarcophagus as it passed through.
In the morning, after breakfast in a pilgrim cafe by the ancient stone bridge, four of us set off to walk together on the last leg of our journey. There were roads and traffic and noise, but there were trees and bridges and peaceful places too. We weren’t in a rush for the walking to end and met friends who also stopped countless times before they took the last steps into Santiago.
And when I turned a corner on the medieval streets and the familiar sharp spires of the cathedral rose into view I felt the smile spreading over me. It felt like coming home.
We were sitting in a remote village cafe when Albrecht rolled up his sleeves to show me the multiple red rows of bed bug bites.
“No more albergues for me,” he said.
Of course. A lightbulb moment. I knew at once that there would be no more albergues on this trip for me either. I needed sleep, peace, somewhere clean and time for all the blotchy bites on my face, neck and shoulders to heal. Late that afternoon I checked in to a small hotel in Caldas de Reis, peeled off my pack, lay on the crisp white bed and listened to the silence. It was the best 28 euros I’ve ever spent.
Later I drank beers and ate with my Canadian, German and Swedish friends. We soaked tired feet and legs in the public hot springs of this pretty spa town and when it got dark we drank hot chocolate in the bread shop and ate yet more pastries. And then I waved them goodnight and retreated to the calm of my solitary space.
All was well with the world when I set off next morning. And when my journey was hijacked it got even better. A man called from the window of a school building as I was walking past and asked if I’d come in and meet the children. “It’s our window on the world,” he said. ” We invite pilgrims in to tell us about their countries. It’s our project. Please speak to the chicos in Scottish.”
Two Croatian girls came in too and I’ve no idea what they told the kids (in Croatian) but I turned to stereotypes and mimed bagpipes, described shaggy Highland cows with long horns, did a little Scottish dance and – for the teacher – focused on whisky. And then the kids crowded round for photographs, we exchanged email and Facebook details, the teacher showed us his scrapbook of postcards from every corner of the globe, we all hugged and five minutes later we set off back on our journeys.
We hadn’t even taken off our packs, but it had been the most magical moment of the week. I’ve fallen back in love with the camino.