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Posts from the ‘Camino de Santiago’ Category

Finding the Scallop Shell Road

P1020951 It happened on a day of doubts and indecision.

I found myself wandering along an unfamiliar dirt track through farmland in north east Scotland, toying with plans for the summer and searching for solutions to some big questions. And after I’d walked through the predictable mud and gravel, I stopped, stunned, as the dreary path gradually gave way to the glorious ridges, pinks and peaches of the symbol I’d followed for a month across Spain; I’d stumbled across a Scallop Shell Road.

Some shells were crushed and broken by vehicles and feet, others were still entire and enticing me forward in the way I followed them for 500 miles on walls, on pavements, through woods and streets and swinging from the packs P1020899of fellow pilgrims all the way to Santiago. Filling potholes may be practical but it seems such a mundane finale for the fine shapes and colours of the Coquilles St Jacques and I wonder if they’re used like this elsewhere.

So was it coincidence – or an omen? Chance, or a clear sign that I should set off again to follow the mark of the scallop shell?

Stretching time

It has been passing too fast, this gap “year” of mine and it seems I’ve now overrun my original 12-month deadline. Thirteen months and … well, who’s counting? Best not. I’ve been stretching it out, packing in adventures, travels, walking,  sunshine, encounters and as much writing as I can before my nomadic lifestyle comes to an end and I have to work again.

The hills have been an enduring focus. Two of the most memorable were Beinn Chabhair and Ben Cruachan in Argyllshire; brutes of mountains which demanded long days and big effort. We started late after mornings of rain spent reading in the tents but Chabhair eventually rewarded the steady slog with evening sunshine and outstanding views. There was no desire to leave the summit so we dallied and gazed at the ranges of hills, trying to work out the names of different peaks, returning to camp too late and tired to cook. We pooled resources and shared beer, chocolate and yoghurt – a walker’s feast.

But Ben Cruachan was a different matter. It has been a target for a long time and it lulled me upwards, almost promising all day that the clouds on the summit would clear as I reached through them to the top.

But for once I wasn’t lucky. I’m a fair-weather walker so the last few hundred feet of navigating through mist over rock slabs was a disorientating experience which I’m not keen to repeat. I turned back once, only to meet a couple of serious climbers then follow them sheep-like to the summit. Finding a route back on my own was scary.

Then it was back up to Sutherland to climb Canisp, the elegant swirl of hill I admired from the summit of Suilven in the springtime. I could P1010343gaze all day at the wonder that is Suilven … But Sandwood Bay beckoned still further north across the moors.

What a day of late summer sunshine, the magnificence of Ben Stack, Foinaven and Arkle poking stark out of the expanse of Sutherland’s heather and moorland.  I want to return to camp there, miles from roads and houses and people and take time to enjoy its peace. Next year.

I camped in the pine woods of the Cairngorms and on the coast  in Fife; I spent three days in Stirling at the “Bloody Scotland” crime writing festival listening to successful writers discuss their books and making friends (and commiserating) with like-minded aspiring authors. One woman had written 18 novels and published them online to acclaim yet still can’t attract a publishing deal. What hope for the rest of us who’re still struggling to finish our first?

But despair in pointless (while procrastination is not) so I jumped on a cheap flight to Bordeaux to rewalk parts of last year’s Camino more slowly. And visit Pamplona, Estella, Bilbao and finally the lovely French town of Bayonne.

And now I’m going to stop and stay still for a while. I’ve arranged to rent a little cottage for the winter; it’s by a beach and it has a fireplace. I don’t need more.  Hibernation suddenly feels like another exciting adventure. I’m going to enjoy the sound of the waves at the door, to walk in all weathers and finish my story.

And in the springtime? Time, I hope, will stretch.

Memories in a bottle

Denmark was smørrebrød, bikes, bacon-wrapped dates, Carlsberg, chocolate-covered liquorice, green fields, grand architecture. And great people.

Our camino memories came flooding back; the laughter, pain, churches, pilgrims, bedbugs and blisters  – enhanced, perhaps, by the Spanish vino tinto on the table and a dram of Benromach, the malt from my “home” distillery in Moray.

No matter where in the world you are, everyone is prepared to try whisky at least once and this one evokes memories.

I grew up near Speyside and when I was little I’d sit on my father’s knee as he drove a tractor and trailer the five miles from our farm to Benromach distillery to collect draff, the distillery by-product that’s used for cattle feed. And as we waited for the trailer to be loaded a half glass of clear liquid would be poured out by the distillery manager for Dad.

Back in those days a bottle would last a year in our house  but Dad drank this full-strength  alcohol neat every time. And then back on the tractor and on his knee, driving at 20 mph up the road to home, he would  be so happy!  It took another ten years before I equated that merriment with the liquid that looked like water.

Benromach closed down for a few decades but has re-entered the market with whisky that’s distinctive amongst the other  Speyside malts. That’s why I always take it as a present on international adventures.

Well no,  if I’m honest, it’s all about the memories; it’s link to the best of times in a blissful childhood.

Visiting Elmelunde

There’s a kirk on the island of Møn in the south east of Denmark that’s special – and not just because it’s where my camino friend Nikolaj was christened.

The tall white church in Elmelunde is famous for its outstanding frescos which were painted in the fifteenth century and then hidden below layers of whitewash for centuries. The gentle drawings were restored in the 1960s and they appeal to me because they seem so honest and simple, and use natural colours to depict everyday rural activities like harvesting, ploughing and hunting. Flowers and plants delicately separate the scenes and there is religious symbolism too, with illustrations of stories from the Bible.

While I knew, of course, that the main area of worship in a church is the nave, I’d forgotten the Christian metaphor of comparing the church itself to a ship. And at P1000146Elmelunde I also discovered the Danish tradition of hanging ships in a religious building, a custom which originated with pagan beliefs that offering a miniature version would offer safe voyage for the full sized vessel and its crew.

I thought of the Viking longboats which sailed with such acquisitive intent to Shetland and other parts of Scotland and the fear these blessed ships once engendered in my ancestors. It’s just a few days, after all, since I was hearing about the Danish “visitors” from a very different perspective.

I loved the sense of simplicity at Elmelunde. I can admire the glorious rich gold altarpieces of French and Spanish cathedrals and the creativity of the spectacular Sistine Chapel ceiling, but these whitewashed P1000151walls topped with quiet frescos naturally drew my gaze heavenwards and I felt surprisingly at home here.

“Takk” , Nikolaj, for taking me. I too have a home church that’s very special and understand how much it means to share it.

Danish fairytale on wheels

We cycled down Hans Christian Andersen Boulevard. And every other street in Copenhagen. We biked to the Little Mermaid, through Christiansborg Palace (Borgen), past the elephants at the zoo and the ones holding up the Carlsberg Brewery.

We took the bikes on ferries from the opera house, pushed them through the cannabis vapors of Christiania, lay them on the grass as we listened to live music and drank beer in the park and finally, late at night, we peddled fast and a little unsteadily back home from the pub.

I saw a road sign which said 25,237 cyclists had passed the check point in the previous 24 hours and wondered if it had just been us going round and round. And around.

P1000101But what a fantastic city for pedal power. Everyone has at least one bike, the lanes are wide and cyclists take priority over vehicles and pedestrians.

Forget the camper van. I’m now lusting after a set of wheels.

Camino reprise in Copenhagen

I’ve been lured east by the Vikings for a catch up with the camino contingent in Scandinavia.

We’ll be meeting up again many miles from Santiago and minus our boots, blisters and bed bugs although I, for one, am travelling with the same backpack and (fumigated) sleeping bag.

I’ve passed through the city before, en route to a press jolly in the Faroes and I’ve watched every single episode of Borgen and The Bridge on television but I still can’t wait to experience it in the company of locals – who are friends.

And (unlike Scotland) it’s not snowing!

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.

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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

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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

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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.

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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.