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Vino, vaseline and an occasional pastry


These were the essentials for a carefree camino.

By the time we reached Nájera we’d covered around 90 miles and the daily pounding in the heat was starting to show on our feet. Many pilgrims were really suffering with horrendous blisters and while my own feet were holding out pretty well in their well-worn boots, I’d started to copy some companions who were plastering their toes with Vaseline every morning.  You can never take too many precautions when reaching your destination every day depends entirely on your feet!


So I remember Nájera less for its illustrious history as the one-time capital of the Navarre Kingdom and more for stocking up with a huge tub of vaseline at a farmacia, buying coffee and chocolate and, oh joy of joys, officially the most delicious apple pastry I have ever eaten – anywhere! I munched it as we crossed the bridge over the río Nájerilla, making for Azofra 6km away through the vineyards of Rioja grapes.

The unlabelled vino at our communal dinner in the albergue garden that night (cooked by Ramon and shared with Norwegians Trudi and Tomas, Bill from New Mexico, Suzanne, Donald and other friends) cost only 2 euros a bottle. And when our stocks ran out we walked back barefoot to the

P1000324village shop for more of their local brew and met an old man on the return journey who was thrilled that we were drinking (and clearly enjoying) his co-operative’s produce. I remember repeating “Esta muy bien” a lot and his laughing face as he waved his stick and wished us a Buen Camino.

We cooled our feet in the garden fountain after the bottles were empty and slept in the most comfortable albergue so far. Two to a room. An open window. Peace.

Taking the road less travelled

We often found ourselves on early morning detours following the “undiscovered” camino. In other words we couldn’t find the yellow arrows or scallop shells and were lost in the dark.

So it was that we got another tour of Torres before heading across the fields and woods to Logroño and a barefoot lunch in a bar in the financial district of this University City. Many pilgrims were taking a day’s rest but, fortified by ice-lollies, we headed on along the main road, over the río Ebro for another 12.5km to the town of Navarette.

We had numerous stops for melted Toblerone or oranges  so by the time we arrived, hot

P1000220and exhausted, the Municipal albergue only had attic rooms left. I lounged in the square drinking cervesas and laughing with Swedish Helen, Chris, Pedro and Nina and others then spent the night in a discounted single room in a B&B. Oh, the luxury! A bed, my own bathroom with as much hot water as I wanted, fluffy towels and no call for earplugs. The candles and pot pourri on the table were totally superfluous!

It was blissful. But I missed the cameraderie of my new pals.

The fabled Fuente del Vino: A wine fountain? Really?

P1000281Drinking fountains were well spaced along the way but the one fuente everyone talked about was on the outskirts of Estella at the Benedictine Monasterio de Irache. A sign on the outside of the building promises that a glug of wine from the “fountain” will help pilgrims on their way to Santiago and bring them luck.

It was still early when we reached it, only 6.36am according to my camera record, but it was a right of passage so, one by one, we queued to stick our heads below the tap, turn it on and sink at least a couple of mouthfuls.

Thank you monks.

We bought bread, cheese and ham for lunch then I stormed on alone for the next two hours across acre after acre of harvested wheat fields to find spaces for Irish John, Yvon, Donald and myself at the Casa Mari albergue in Torres del Rio. Communication with the fag-puffing hospitalera proved troublesome and highly amusing when she just upped the volume in her bid to make me understand.

It turned out she wasn’t keen for me to hold on to so many places as more and more pilgrims turned up looking for beds. She was also unsure about me sharing a room with three men! To be honest I wasn’t so sure myself when P1000313John threw down his pack and warned us about his snoring.

P1000299The oversubscribed showers and loos were outside and noisy Germans prevented a late afternoon nap but the day ended with a fabulous dinner with old friends – Ramon and Suzanne, Doug and Pam, Massimo the Irish priest had all turned up –  in an old stone inn.

We took a detour back to the albergue in the late evening heat and took time to admire the beautifully lit Iglesia de Santo Sepulchro.

And John DID snore!

Gammy hips and a man called Juan

P1000269Vineyards, rolling farmland and woodland were our constant companions on the 22km walk to Estella. Not far along the track I met a Spaniard from the west called Juan who shared his knowledge of the plants and fruits we passed as well as his hoard of dried fruit and nuts every time we stopped to rest.

He spoke no English and my Spanish was limited so we resorted to French and foraged for almonds, figs and grapes from the fields . Lunch was in Villatuerta where I gobbled painkillers for aching hips and was forced to borrow Irish John’s walking pole to help me hobble the last 4km to the municipal hostel in Estella.

Image 4It’s amazing what a foot rub can do though!  Irish John and I were soon out exploring the architecture of the medieval town with Juan and watching him hit exploding plants called Devil’s Cucumbers with his stick.

Then finally (just for exercise) after supper with French-Canadian Yvon and French former peacekeeper Michelle, we took a last stroll to the church and listened at the huge door to the faint strains of the classical concert taking place inside.


Where the wind meets the stars


Day five started with a long steady climb to the summit of Alto del Perdón at 790m where it became obvious why the top was covered in turbines. We had to hold on to our hats as we posed for photos alongside the battered wrought iron statue representing medieval pilgrims struggling against the wind.

But what a view: behind us were the Pyrenees and new friendships already forged and ahead, stretching out across Spain, the rest of the long journey to Santiago.

P1000221We shared an orange before the steep descent then figured we deserved another café con leche at Uterga and as I opened the bar door I heard the familiar strains of “The Northern Lights of Old Aberdeen”. The language barrier meant I failed to understand why anyone in a bar in the blazing heat of a remote Spanish hill village was missing the attractions of the Granite City. I certainly wasn’t.

More haunting Scottish melodies sent us on our way via a detour to the 12th century Knights Templar church at Eunate. It was a quiet, pilgrim-free 3km, the path lined on either side with sunflowers, corn, blueberries and a feathery herb I didn’t recognize then as we walked through the P1000245village of Óbanos, the weekend’s fiesta was in full swing, people were drinking and eating at stalls in the square and impatient black calves were being lined up for the “bull ring”.

My hips were aching by the time we stopped that night on the far side of the bridge over the río Arga at Puenta la Reina. A young lad had handed us a leaflet for Santiago Apostol, an albergue forever thereafter referred to as “The Resort” so impressive were its facilities! Warm showers, clothes-washing sinks, spacious bunks and a long washing line with PEGS: my definition of luxury accommodation was changing forever.

Walking towards desayuno

“Cafe con leche, zumo de naranja y tostada, por favor”.

The breakfast order never changed and after an hour or two of walking we had earned it. Occasionally there would be a chocolate croissant and in one region the first meal of the day comprised blocks of sponge cake: take it or leave it.

It was early too; bag packing and general rustling would kick off around 5am and most of us were on the road by 6.30am in order to beat the heat of the afternoon.

But the morning we walked towards the city of Pamplona there was a stall with a pizza oven situated about an hour out from the albergue. It was like a mirage at the edge of the track and we fell upon it, fuelling up for the miles ahead. Pamplona, a few hours later, offered my first taste of Spanish tortilla, the delicious thick potato and onion omelette served hot with bread. Mmmmm!

We daundered through the bull-running streets and the cathedral but having spent a few days walking along quiet tracks and through woods the city felt noisy and busy so we pressed on, past the university and out to Cizur Menor, finding bunks in the Albergue Sanjuanista run by hospitallero Ambrosio who later morphed into a musician, playing his guitar in the  neighbouring church.


P1000204Austalian Doug played a couple of Scottish songs too and the stone acoustics made familiar melodies hauntingly beautiful.

Which is more than could be said for the horrendous racket from the band playing at the local “fiesta” which boomed and echoed until 4.30am and  exceeded the capabilities of my earplugs. It was a relief to rise at 6.30, have a cup of tea and an angel cake in Ambrosio’s kitchen and get back on the road.

Renga at a crossroads

P1000149Only two days on the road and already  comfortable in the company of my first camino “family”, I faced a dilemna: I could stay overnight with them once they caught up with me in Zubiri or carry on walking another 8km to Larrasoaña, the next town. I wasn’t ready to stop for the day but I didn’t want to walk on alone either.

I paused in the square to consider and check my feet for blisters. Then around the corner came a lone pilgrim intent on another two hours walking. Would I go with him?

I strapped a plaster on a potential blister and we set off at a brisk pace, talking all the way. The outskirts of the village were industrial and ugly and we had to circle a magma plant and quarry but the conversation was good, the time flew by and I forgot all about my feet.


By that evening Donald and I were firm friends, along with Australians Doug and Pam (who’d already heard a Scottish Renga was on the road), Suzanne from Colorado, Irish John and Ramon from California. These were the folk who would form the core of my extended family for the rest of the camino, and beyond.

I don’t remember what we ate that evening but there was constant laughter and it was one of the best nights of the month. The reserve “overflow’ albergue was probably the most basic we’d ever stay in and the view of the spider-strewn skylight above my bunk will haunt my dreams forever.

But Donald left chocolate on my pillow and Ramon charged my camera with his cable. I fell asleep feeling I was already amongst friends and knowing I’d made a great decision back in Zubiri.

First Steps

IMG_0755It felt daunting, that first morning, lacing up my boots, strapping on the backpack and self-conciously making my way through the deserted old cobblestone streets of St Jean.

Most of that day’s batch of pilgrims had already left at the crack of dawn to tackle the long trek over the Pyrenees but I’d decided to break myself in gently, walking only as far as the auberge at Orisson, 8km away.

The steep climb towards the mountains began at once: it was hard going but it was on a good road and I could walk at my own pace. I felt the weight of the pack on my back and was grateful that I’d followed all previous pilgrims advice to keep it to a minimum.

And while I had started out alone, by dinnertime that night I’d made friends with Pat and Lola, two Canadian ladies d’un certain age, Peter from Denmark and a loquacious Australian joker called John who nicknamed me “The Renga” in honour of my hair colour. It stuck.

P1000116Americans Brian and Elaine from Buffalo were also there that first night and although we met only intermittently in the weeks that followed, we ended up walking into Santiago 31 days later, just hours apart.

But that first night we all shared food, wine, laughter and our hopes for the journey ahead. After dinner the auberge owner asked people to stand up and say where they were and why they were walking the camino. Most said it was for spiritual or religious reasons so when I announced I had sold my house, given up my work and left a relationship behind there was a cheer!

Later I rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled into a bunk in a room with four mature French lady farmers and a South African girl. One French woman glanced up: “C’est vous!” she exclaimed to me then called to her friends to come and see. They all stared  and eventually explained they’d been “surprised” by my honesty. Or that’s how I chose to interpret their words.

P1000147 I hadn’t slept in communal facilities since schooldays but I was instantly at ease with the companionship and closed my eyes to the accompaniment of French snoring, easily audible above my earplugs.

I had a feeling this was going to be a memorable journey.

To be a Pilgrim

P1040215I’d had a copy of the Brierley guide to the Camino Frances by my bed for two years. It’s the ancient 500 mile long pilgrim journey from St Jean Pied de Port on the French side of the Pyrennees to Santiago de Compostella.

“The Way” crosses Spain, passing through the heart of cities, over mountains, past vineyards, olive groves and across the endless wheat fields of the meseta.

The medieval journey which originated with the desire of Christians to pay homage at the relics of St James (Sant Iago) has been revived in the last decade, with tens of thousands of pilgrims from every corner of the globe now making the journey every year. To do it in one stretch demands a serious time commitment – around a month of walking – and like most people I had never been able to take that amount of time out.

P1000115But now I could. I already had the boots, the rucksack  and the guide book – and I was relatively fit. I read advice online, walked barefoot along Scottish beaches and invested in a Tilley hat to shade me from the Spanish sun.

I bought a cheap flight from Edinburgh to Bordeaux then jumped on a train to Bayonne and finally transferred to a pilgrim-packed carriage on the tiny mountain railway that terminates in St Jean. Dozens of us sat clutching our packs – many of them already adorned with the traditional scallop shell –  staring out of the window, wondering what lay ahead and how far we would get.

And then the train pulled in to St John, we hoisted on clean rucksacks that still felt alien on our backs. For the moment there was no going back.

The journey had begun.

Clearing the decks

So… you sell your house, get rid of “stuff” then relinquish the work contacts and commitments you’ve built up over 30 years.

Then what? Well, that’s the work in progress.

I came to the conclusion  in 2012 that I’d written about other peoples lives for too long. I enjoy interviewing folk about their stories but time was moving on and I needed to make some stories of my own. I longed for a mixture of real life adventures and the time to write the fiction I’ve dabbled with over the years.

But creating that sort of freedom and time requires sacrifice. There was no other option, my house had to go. A home with three bedrooms was an extravagance for one person, and the attic was jammed full of excess things I didn’t want.

garden June 28 001So the clear-out began. The charity shops were inundated, the cat was “sold” with the house and my minimised worldly goods were packed into a corner of a garage. My friends raised eyebrows and looked concerned but  offered beds whenever I needed them.

I was homeless, unemployed and single. I had cleared the decks and had no commitments. I was ready for my adventure.