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The next adventure beckons

The Sutherland Trail stretches for more than 70 miles on remote and lonely tracks through some of Scotland’s most spectacular wild scenery. It winds past hill lochs, along rivers, around iconic mountains like Suilven and Canisp all the way from the fishing village of Lochinver on the beautiful far northwest to the village of Tongue on the north coast.

My old pal Noreen, who refers to me “Intrepid One” since I returned from the Camino, suggested we tackle it and being the great organiser that she is, plotted out our route and booked the bus tickets from Inverness to Ullapool and then on to Lochinver as soon as I enthusiastically nodded my agreement!

So today my rucksack is packed, my boots are raring to go at the door and there’s hopefully enough down and feathers in my bag in the shape of jackets and sleeping bags to keep me warm overnight in my tiny one-man tent. We’re carrying everything on our backs: food, cooking gear, tents and essential Scottish walking supplies like a tick extractor.

suthtrailThere would, however, appear to be no requirement for sun protection. The forecast this week is for highs of 8 degrees during the day, down to below freezing at night. And snow. And rain.  However the buses from Inverness to Ullapool and from Ulapool to Lochinver are booked and we are committed.

Cold, camping and cooking. It’s going to be nothing like the Camino

Celebrating in Santiago

P1000625We sat down to tapas and wine at a sunny street café, just whiling away a couple of hours, watching the Santiago world saunter by. What a luxury!

Robbie and I ate calamari, gambas in garlic, olives and pimientos de patron, washed down with vino blanco and cervesa then wandered slowly along to the Pilgrim Office to join the queue for our Compostellas. It stretched all the way up the stairs and there, just arrived, were some of the best pals we had walked with over the previous weeks! We had a great reunion and as they went in search of beds we duly visited the relics of St James and wandered the streets of this hard-to-navigate old city.

P1000633We all gathered in the evening; Nathan and Carmen, Irish John, Donald, Suzanne, Brian, Elaine, Patricia and so many others at a huge happy table. A few us went on for a drink in a late bar then, under a full moon in the cathedral square, we gathered for photos beside the central shell embedded in the stone cobbles which marked the end of the Camino.

Robbie caught a flight early in the morning then I went back to the Cathedral while it was still almost empty, such a contrast to the day before. I sat quietly in a pew near the front, just reading, resting and absorbing the atmosphere for more than two hours, barely noticing the gathering crowds or that I was gradually being squeezed into a corner of the seat.


The rest of the day was spent meeting up with pals in the streets, sitting down to share wine and tapas and then drinking mojitos till late with friends including Andreas, Lisette and Bibi.

John and Patricia were on the same flight as me to Stanstead where we hugged and said goodbye.

And it was only then that I realised my Camino was finally over.

I had my pilgrim passport full of stamps, a slimmer, stronger body, a journal and brain stuffed full of memories, experiences, email addresses and phone numbers.

Besides, I wasn’t really travelling alone: as my itchy back testified, I still had the company of the bed bugs.

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass


Without breaking our stride we walked straight up the steps, out of the sunshine and into the Cathedral.

It was noisy and busy which made it difficult to concentrate on the enormity of the moment. I had been 31 days on the road, walking towards this place.

I unhooked my pack, sank into a pew, undid my boots and waited…

For what, I wasn’t sure. I was grateful to be here of course; for the strength and fitness that made it possible to walk 500 miles; for the friends made along the way; for the story and tradition of the road we had walked and for the special gift of Robbie’s company over the last week.

We wanted to share the experience with his brother so we called him in New Zealand.  Robbie went to find water and still I sat there, gazing at the extravagant gold altarpiece built to glorify St James. Waiting.

It was only 10.45am but already people were filling the 1000 or so seats. Friends and familiar faces from along the way arrived, wandering dazed down the aisles, and we greeted one another and hugged. It was emotional. Visitors, pilgrims, nuns and locals packed into every space and still more arrived and crammed in around the walls. The chatter and sense of expectation grew louder. Then we were hushed.

And the nun sang.

IMG_0766The pure sound of a solitary voice echoed round the ancient walls. We listened, captivated,  then tried to copy her as she taught us to sing alleluia to the beautiful cadences.  The magnificent organ heralded the arrival of the priests. And the mass began.

At the end the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro was lowered to the fanfare of the organ then the tiraboleiros – the red coated attendants – took up their positions on the ropes and began to pull downwards. The choir sang. I hadn’t dared hope we would arrive on a day when the Botafumeiro was swung. Scores of people rushed up the aisle to watch and photograph it as it picked up speed and rocketed over our heads, drifting streams of smoke as it flew.

P1000638And then it was over. We laced up our boots and loaded on our packs.

We still had to find beds for the night.

Sharing the last steps


With just 20km to go I was finding it hard to distill how I was feeling about the whole experience of walking the Camino.

The physical challenge had been relatively easy and the camaraderie and communication with people from varied backgrounds all over the globe had been the best fun I’d had in years. I’d made firm friends and laughed with them in the evenings, improved my fitness, compared feet and blisters, become more tolerant and had time to reflect on what to do, where to go, next.


And yet … old habits and attitudes die hard. I’d given myself a deadline to reach Santiago in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon the next day so that I could share the experience with Robbie. And that meant getting up at 5am and finding our way in the darkness through the eucalyptus woods.

We got lost and I got anxious. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything after all!

Finally, after so many days on the road, we caught a glimpse of the spires of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

I felt nervous rather than exhilarated: unsure and unprepared. Our feet were sore and for the first time my back was aching. Walking through the suburbs was P1000621relentless and we were pushed along by a growing stream of day pilgrims, tourists, schoolchildren all focused on the 12 o’clock mass. Everyone seemed to be walking urgently.

The scallop shells led the way, the narrow streets were drawing us through, the excitement was palpable. We kept turning to one another and smiling. And then a square opened before us and magnificently, gloriously the cathedral steps beckoned.

We had arrived.

Slowing down on the home straight

P1000582Spain or not, my Scottish boy felt he’d earned a traditional fried breakfast of bacon, egg and toast by the time we reached the first café in Portomarín. And then cervesa at lunchtime (while we sheltered from the constant rain).

We were frozen and soaked through by the time we reached Palas de Rei so stopped at the first albergue we reached. We got bunks in the huge industrial-scale Pavillón where 112 beds are packed into two huge rooms. It was pretty horrible; everyone’s clothes were soaking wet and by the time I put my name on the list, I was 19th in the queue for the washer and dryer so there was virtually no chance of leaving in dry gear in the morning.

The bed bug bites itched all night and the next day my left shin started to ache. We were getting so close to the end now and by the time we reached Arzúa a farmacia was top of the list. We needed bandages, antihistamine for the bites and Compeed – the most popular P1000602items, it would appear. They were certainly conveniently situated on the counter!

P1000606And then we made a great decision: rather than walking the final 40km into Santiago in one day we would break it into two. So we spent a day lollygagging (as our North American friends described it) only as far as Arca o  Pino, through woodlands of eucalyptus, stopping regularly for breaks and savouring the easy walking.  Then Robbie and I spend our last night on the road eating pizza and sharing stories, experiences and photos with Nathan and Carmen.

Tomorrow morning, after more than a month on the road, we would walk the final 20km into Santiago in time for Pilgrim Mass at noon.

Shell shaped cakes on the road to Santiago

IMG_5073The scallop shell is the enduring symbol of the Camino.

It guided us through city streets, was carved on pavements and walls and it swung on the backs of thousands of fellow pilgrims as we walked The Way.

Increasingly the form appeared on our plates as Flan de Santiago, a scallop-shaped crème caramel and, as we walked through the woods a kilometer or so out of Triacastela, a giant motif marked a drinking fountain.

We filled our bottles here then crossed the lush farmlands of Galicia, walked alongside fields of cattle and through the middle of farmyards and steadings, all the way to Serria – where Robbie demanded “a decent lunch”!



The ubiquitous Flan de Santiago

An Italian restaurant on the outskirts of town served us delicious spaghetti with garlic, oil and chilli spices; we had rosemary bread, vino tinto and tiramisu.  I didn’t think I’d be able to move again but we picked up our packs and ploughed on to Ferrerios where we got the last bunks in the municipal albergue that already contained several old friends, Carmen and Nathan, Lisette from Denmark and her entertaining friend Bibi who had just joined her.

We shared a dinner of Galician chicken and the first of many Flans de Santiago. The newcomers then headed for the bar while we old-timers got our heads on the pillows as quickly as possible.

And started to scratch.

Riders in the storm – and a kidnapping in Triacastela

I’d been emailing my son for four weeks, waxing lyrical about the heat and endless hours of Spanish sunshine. I’d written about the regular stops at cafés, the cathedrals, culture, wine and food. So, lured by balmy temperatures and the alfresco lifestyle, he agreed to come and walk with me for the last 120km to Santiago.

And then, just as he was flying into the country, we entered Galicia.

Image 2We climbed to the top of O’Cebreiro then higher to Alto do Poio where, at 4380ft, Galicia showed us it was made of sterner and more demanding stuff then the regions we had left behind. Waterproofs went on for the first time in four weeks and instead of shielding me from the sun, my trusty (tied down) Tilley hat had to keep out the worst of the storm that lashed down on my head.

P1000497We shared some of the narrow paths with horses – caballos – today and the smell of leather, thornproof waterproofs and damp animals was intoxicating. But for once I wasn’t envious of the riders in their heavy ponchos who looked cold and uncomfortable as the rain poured down and they had to negotiate their way around the endless stream of drenched travellers.

But being a Scot I was thrilled by the onset of the spectacular wild weather and found myself singing John Bunyan’s  “To be a Pilgrim” for most of the 10 long kilometers down the hill to Triacastela, on paths that were being washed away into streams that filled our boots with water and gravel.

ImageThe nearest albergues were full when we arrived but at one an old Spanish lady called Olga loitered near the desk. She beckoned and urged us to follow her into the street where we found ourselves hijacked in her rickety car and speeding down the road to some (costly) bunks in a renovated garage! In dire emergency, perhaps, it would have been a Godsend. But it hadn’t yet come to that. We escaped.

In the end we waded in to Albergue Aitzenea, a stone building where our old pals Nathan and Carmen greeted us as they sat writing at a table. I bagged a bunk for Robbie and we all went to dinner round the corner with French Jeanine who had taken photos as we walked. Then Robbie arrived in a taxi and was integrated into camino life with an evening of laughter, stories, wine and a 10-euro three-course meal.

And the downpour outside made it feel just like home.


Storm clouds gathering in Galicia

P1000562The bed bugs were closing in.

The chattering about bites was getting louder and albergues had started to hand out plastic covers for mattresses. I had been using a pyrethrin-impregnated cover on every mattress since I started but knew it was just a matter of time before my luck ran out.

And at La Faba they were far too close for comfort. I heard an American girl complain to the staff in the morning that she had been bitten, pointing out the telltale four red lumps in a line on her arm. The rest of us cautiously rolled up our sleeping bags, wondering what we might be transporting to our next stop.

But what a great, hospitable place La Faba had been. This borderland with Galicia meant more rain so the hillsides were green and P1000561tranquil around the small, hot villages down in the Valcarce valley and the little rivers clean and sparkling. The views above our heads were spectacular too, in part because of the unbelievable intrusion of the motorway high above the towns and trees.

We enjoyed a superb evening at the bar-restaurant just along from the German-run albergue with some great folk including John from Chicago and Ed and Linda from Boston.

But the weather was breaking. Storms were forecast and we had the rest of the mountain to climb first thing in the morning. Bed bugs or not, it was time to rest.

Mussels, figs, painkillers … and poetry in the street


We didn’t often stop for a proper lunch but today, after 25 hot and not entirely pain-free kilometers, we threw off our packs and sat down at a street table in Cacabelos and ordered tapas: juicy mussels, potato croquettes, bread, water (with painkiller) and wine. Mmmmm.  The waitress brought us a complementary bag of ripe figs from the garden too and those we ate at the table were delicious. The others didn’t travel too well.

The food slowed us down so it felt like a hard slog through the endless vineyards P1000533where workers were harvesting grapes, past a sculpture workshop and its strange colourful work outside and finally into Villafranca where we searched in vain for the “albergue with nice gardens”. Turned out it had been burned down and the gardens abandoned to weeds.

The last albergue on the outskirts of town was “completo” but Libia, the young co-owner served us tea and biscuits while she called around local guest houses and hotels. Everything was full, apart from the  “boutique” hotel, Las Doñas back down by the bridge.

So… the choice was between heaving P1000550on our packs and limping on to the next town 12m away or succumbing to white sheets, a bathroom with toiletries, clean fluffy towels and an all singing-dancing shower. Tough decision.

I met an old man in the street later that evening who was anxious to point out a plaque on a house marking the birthplace of the Spanish “famoso” poet, Enrique Gil y Carrasco. We conversed for some time (despite my limited Spanish) about P1000454national poets, I heard about the pride he felt about this native son and he listened to a wee bit of Robbie Burns right there in the fading light of the pilgrim way. We parted with great affection and hand shaking.

It’s moments like these that make the camino unforgettable.

Hitting the high point

P1000493We climbed to just below 5000ft this morning, all the way up to the simple iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro, and the last 500ft or so took forever as I kept turning round to watch the sun rising behind and below the highest point of the whole camino.

Thousands of pilgrims have left stones or tokens here so we clambered over the rough rocky track to the base of the cross for photographs then lingered on this glorious early morning as the sun grew higher in the sky. It was downhill then for the next 20km and having climbed so far and so high I was reluctant to leave the mountains.

Suzanne and I took the steep path together down through the bushes and trees and paused to look in at the settlement at Manjarin, a romantic, hippy mountain hut of wind chimes, water and organic teas.

The plan had been to walk to Ponferrada but after so long on such wonderful (but blistering P1000496hot) sheltered tracks through the valley we didn’t want to spend a night in a city so turned in instead to the Santa Marina albergue on the outskirts of Molinaseca. Proper single beds and a (not very efficient) washing machine were our reward and later we enjoyed a quiet dinner with lots of wine and laughter at a balmy outside table by the old stone bridge.

But then ensued the “war of the windows”, with the Dutch, Scots and Canadians opting for fresh air and the French contingent desiring no draughts. How we conform to our national stereotypes!

I fell asleep before it was resolved. I could still walk and nothing else mattered.