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Camino Confession

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I took the bus.

I know, I know. Call myself a pilgrim? A hard core walker? The same person who walked every inch of the 500 miles across Spain with a hanging-off toe and aching hips and knees?  Maybe I’ve gone soft, but on this occasion I just didn’t see the point.

The plan was devised late at night after reading the guidebook description of the next day’s route which runs through industrial estates and along the side of busy roads most of the way to Redondela. For me, the compensation for tired legs and feet, sleepless nights of neighbouring snoring, suspect mattresses, and the trials of bugs and living in close proximity with other people is the prospect of spending the daylight hours walking alongside ripening grapes, over old stone bridges, past churches and crosses or by the side of empty wheat fields. But on the leg ahead there appeared to be no promise of anything other than tarmac, concrete, noise and danger.

We left the albergue before 7am, paid our 2.75 to the bus driver and sat in luxurious comfort in the early morning darkness for thirty short minutes, watching huge yellow Camino signs flash by, warning motorists to be aware of walkers. Any tingling of guilt that I should be out there plodding along to the accompaniment of speeding machines quickly dissipated. The journey was over too soon and it was still dark when we jumped down and unloaded our packs from the deep recesses of the bus then set off, making our way through the streets and out of town.

There were some bonny stretches today, but the last couple of kilometres before Pontevedra were along the edge of the  busy road into the city so I decided to take the alternative river walk recommended in the guidebook. This woodland route was longer, but I’d walked only 18km and it was still early in the day. I could see that everyone ahead of me stayed on the main road, but just as I turned left onto the quieter route I met Sheila and Dan, two Americans from Oregon, and a limping German girl who had also decided to follow the track.

It was still in the woods; shady and quiet among the trees. We chatted for a while but I walked faster than the others so eventually I left them far behind and walked on, happy to wander alone along the meandering path. There wouldn’t be much peace in the big dormitory which lay ahead.

A man suddenly appeared, running awkwardly towards me and straight past. I noticed he was wearing ordinary clothes and shoes rather than running gear. I walked on. Then a few minutes later he reappeared behind me, overtook me and jogged back into the woods in the direction I was headed. Maybe I have an overactive imagination. Maybe I’ve read too many accounts of lone women having bad experiences on the camino, but I had a sense that something wasn’t right. There was no one else around and I wasn’t happy about walking on.  I stopped in a clearing and waited a while then began walking back to find the others. The woods were quiet and I wondered if they’d changed their minds and returned to the shorter route but eventually they appeared, the German girl limping worse than ever. They hadn’t seen the “runner” at all.

We walked on together at a snail’s pace, all the way to the hostel. The man may have been entirely innocent but the experience unnerved me. Maybe the noisy edges of motorways are safer after all.

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Bugs-bed! Bugs-bed!

IMG_4038It’s an alarm that doesn’t sound good in any language or accent. And at 1.30am, when Tom the Finn found he was being bitten, he didn’t hesitate to share his horror. He issued the chilling warning, shook his sleeping bag and flashed his torch beam around the room while he inspected every bed for a bug-free place to lay his head. The snorers slept through the drama, of course, but everyone else immediately imagined an infestation that might or might not be real. And that was an end to rest for another night.

So we were a weary-looking bunch as we set off down the road from Rubiães in the morning. It was the first rainy day in a week and some people left protected in full waterproofs, but the rain was warm and gentle and I walked happily in shorts the 20km to Valença, the last city in Portugal. The arrows directed us through the narrow cobbled streets and up into the fortress which dominates the town then finally out through dark, mysterious passages and back into the light. A metaphor for the camino, perhaps? We crossed the Rio Minho on the edge of the high, long rail-road bridge, And entered Spain.

Rattling the doors of the tourist Information centre proved pointless. It was frustrating because our watches told us it should be open and we needed … information! Eventually we gave up and we wandered off to find our own way around town, all the while muttering about extended siestas. Only when we were sitting in a bar with tapas and vino tinto did we remember the time change between the countries, and by then we were comfortably settled in an albergue with  sheets and duvets – and I had a top bunk against a wall. Perfecto. The Quebecois girls turned up late after moving hostels when they discovered the Portuguese Snorer was in their room. Word was getting around. I wonder if he’ll realise there’s a problem when he has a whole dorm to himself by the end of his camino?

It feels good to be back in Spain though. We’re now half way to Santiago.

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Reaching the high (and low) point

Camino Portuguese Day 4

The map indicated a mountain of Himalayan proportions; a near vertical climb to the top of the Alto da Portela Grande. It was a route grandly described as a “high pass over the mountain ridge”.

And then I looked carefully at the contour lines and realised the summit was only 405m high, which in Scotland barely counts as a hill at all. However a heavy pack meant the rutted track through the trees was heart-thumpingly steep, and the Spanish cyclists who’d whizzed past me 30 minutes earlier shouting a cheery “Buen Camino” had to lift their bikes and manoeuvre them shoulder-high over the rocks. Their noisy machismo and bravado had long since evaporated by the time I’d caught up.

I took a deep breath, changed gear and left them in my wake, pausing for just a few seconds at the stone Cruz dos Francese in the woods near the top. The final push at last brought views into the Coura river valley far below.

But there was no time to linger. More bites on my face this morning meant I needed to reach laundry facilities where I could boil bedding and clothes then roast any lingering bugs in a tumble drier. It took some imaginative miming to explain to the Portuguese manager of the next albergue that I would only stay if he had the necessary machines. We went on a tour and found the essential white appliances then (since i was the first person at the hostel) I stood right there, removed my clothes and emptied them and the contents of my pack into the contraption and turned the dial to maximum. I scurried away in a towel to the shower to wait until they’d done their work.

And so to the bliss and peace of a clean bed.  I’d chosen a quiet corner away from the known snorers but when I returned to the dorm at 9.30pm I discovered the neighbouring bunk was now occupied by the notorious Portuguese Snorer, a man many people have changed hostels to avoid. True to form his bed was already vibrating to deep guttural roars.

I rammed earplugs deep into my head and pulled the pristine bedding over my face. The promise of peace was destroyed. This was going to be another long night .
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Toiling towards Ponte de Lima



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Camino Portuguese Day 3

I woke to find three itchy red weals on my face. Another two on my neck. And an ugly, angry sprinkling over my shoulders.

Welcome to Camino life where the most pressing issues of the day are an endless computation of sprains, pains, blisters and bites. Just like “ordinary” life there are good and bad days on the road, and this one wasn’t starting too well.

I applied ointment from my pack, stuffed my sleeping bag and clothes in plastic bags in case of contamination, strapped on my rucksack … and walked on.

The initial diagnosis was bedbugs. They’re endemic on the Camino and like most pilgrims I suffered three years ago on the Camino Frances. A row of three bites in the morning  is usually a clue that they’ve feasted on blood for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But these bites look different. “Mosquitos?” suggested the man behind the counter in the minimercado, the closest the first village had to a farmacia. “Or spiders?” I bought some mosquito bite ointment…  and walked on.

A chocolate croissant from the hot bread shop on the way to Balugâes distracted me for a while and propelled me past the popular  albergue near Lugar do Corgo, although I did look longingly at its welcoming sign. Then it was onwards for hours across hot, flat farmlands and under trailing vines to the beautiful Ponte de Lima.

The albergue was all the way through town on the far side of the bridge and the beds up a cruel two flights of stairs. I badly needed a shower to wash away sweat, dirt and bugs but instead I lay on the floor for half an hour and rested my legs up the wall as the dormitory slowly filled with hot, smelly pilgrims.

I then spend most of a restless night doing yoga to the accompaniment of a cacophony of grunting and snoring. I stretched seized shoulders, attempted to lloosen a tight spine and neck, and applied a growing concoction of potions to my deteriorating complexion.

And all through the wee small hours I questioned precisely why I was subjecting my body to such sleeplessness and discomfort.

Tomorrow might be one of those good days.

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Sounds of The Camino

Camino Portuguese Day 2

Dogs bark and growl behind locked gates as you pass ; distant church bells ring through the trees; cockerels crow all day long; and miniature tractor and grass-cutter engines toil in fields.

Then there’s the endless grind and crunch of boots on stone and gravel.

The sounds of the Camino.

Too much of this Portuguese route has been on the edge of roads, requiring every sense to be alert to the dangers of fast traffic, but today’s path to Barcelos meandered through the copper and bronze of autumnal farmland and woods. The scents were of animals tied up indoors for the season; of mushrooms in damp forests; and of corn and wood gathered in for winter.
After 20 long kilometres I stopped, sat down and undid hot boots to savour my first Pasteis de Nata, Portugal’s famous rich custard pastry. If it means walking for a day to justify eating one of these heavenly delicacies, it’s worth every footstep.

The blue sky and warm sunshine encouraged me to walk on to reach the famous town of Barcelos. It’s home to the legend of the cockerel which apparently crowed to save a pilgrim’s life (even though it had already been cooked!)  No matter, the cervesa was delicious after the long walk and (after taking a peek at the folk-dancers accommodation down near the river) I stayed in the great modern albergue run by the Amigos de Montanha, a friendly mountaineering association. We sat round the kitchen table, drank wine and ate pasta cooked by Lucie, Sonya and Jennifer then shared fruit and stories till bedtime. I slept soundly in a top bunk beside an open window.

It was everything I wanted and needed. What could possibly go wrong?


Life and death on the Portuguese


Camino Portuguese Day 1

Monastery or not, the bluebottle didn’t stand a chance.

The plump hospitalera grabbed my Brierley guide to the Camino Portuguése, took aim, swotted the insect in one deadly swoop, scraped it off the reception table and handed back the stained book with a satisfied grunt.

You can’t afford to be too sensitive  when the price of a bed is €5 and the tiny black-clad lady takes you by the arm and opens every cupboard of the kitchen to show you her pots, plates and marmalades. And then hangs out of a top floor window to point the way to the “supermercado” and mimes what can be bought on its shelves.

And so began my first night on the Camino, in the Mosteiro de Vairão, a monastery founded in the eleventh century which now hosts road-weary pilgrims. All I needed for dinner  after a nerve-jangling walk on the edge of fast traffic was wine and a taste of the marmalade on a bread roll, from the less than “super” mercado.

It will take time to adjust to being a pilgrim again. My legs feel strong after a summer of climbing, but walking on roads and cobbles is nothing like the spring of heather and moorland. And I packed with care, yet the backpack weighs heavy on my shoulders and I’m constantly adjusting and readjusting the straps to find a comfortable fit.

But the sun has transported me back to summer, my boots are eating up the miles and the characters on the road entertain and amaze. The young Dutchman now remembered  as “The Boy Wizard” carried a massive pack that was five times heavier than mine yet he claimed to be “flowing with synchronicity”.

He did slow down when we reached the first hill. And I haven’t seen him now for some time.

Another Way to Santiago

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I thought the Camino had eluded me this year.

The urge to climb high and view the world from Scottish peaks and sleep in green corrie campsites filled my head and heart all spring and summer. It absorbed every scrap of my energy and enthusiasm – and a lot of time when I should really have been working.

And yet. And yet.

Triggered by photographs, long shadows on walls or roads and contact with pilgrim friends on three continents, El Camino has lurked and tugged at my imagination. It’s three years since I first set foot on the Way from St Jean Pied de Port and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t reflected on that journey, the people I met and the mark it made on my life.

And now, almost without warning, my backpack is loaded and my heather-scratched boots are patiently waiting at the door. My passport and guidebook are laid out on the table and the departure for my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St James is imminent.

This time I’ll walk along the camino portugués, along the route reputedly walked by Sant Iago himself when he first preached his gospel. Poignantly it’s also the way his body was carried back to be buried in the site now known as Santiago de Compostella.

I’m hoping for a Buen Camino.

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