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Posts from the ‘Camino de Santiago’ Category

Resting at the Riego do Nievas, the River of Snows

IMG_2423This has been a day of days.

Clear blue skies, remote paths and a landscape of rivers, woods and wild moorland lay ahead this morning, and the reward at day’s end was the promise of eventually reaching the sea.

I had some stunning Spanish horses and their riders for company  for a while in the morning and picked up pace to match their speed until they cantered away onto the high moors. I enjoyed their scent, the sense of tradition, the dogs at their heels and the sound of their hooves on the track (not to mention the conversation with the swarthy Spaniard on his steed!) but loved the silence even more when they moved on and I became lost in the landscape.

The heat was tiring and I eventually stopped to rest at an isolated spot named on the map as P1040928Ermita das Nieves (Hermitage of Our Lady of the Snows), a remote chapel and holy spring which is now officially my most favourite place on the entire Camino. I pulled off my socks and boots and lay down on the ancient shady stone steps of the chapel, and I thought how wonderfully simple life can be when you pare it all down. If I’m anxious or tired in future I’ll think of the hour I lay there in the warmth, feeling the peace of the hallowed stone seep into my bones.

Eventually I wandered into the field to dip my feet in the spring by the carved stone cross, which I hope wasn’t too sacrilegious? The waters supposedly have special powers which are most powerful on one day of the year, but fortunately not the day I was there, or it would have been much too busy. I felt revived but walked even more slowly after that, stretching the day and savouring this lonely part of the Camino.

P1040880A couple of German men I’d met the night before caught up and we stopped to fill our water bottles at another remote stone font, this one dedicated to St Peter the Martyr. The water here is reputed to cure aches and pains but more importantly it tasted cool and delicious on a hot, thirsty day.

There was still a long way to go but I was so reluctant to let the day end, I dawdled slowly through the high pine woods. And then, finally, when the views opened up, I caught my first glimpse of the sea almost 1000ft below.

A hot P1040940shower, reconnecting with friends, essential cervezas and that particular Camino pleasure of  washing clothes by hand all lay ahead in the seaside town of Cee, but my feet dragged for the final few kilometres and I constantly looked back up to the stone cross on the hill.

It might be a while before I’m physically back in Spain but it’s a comfort to know that the Ermita is firmly imprinted in my head and  I can return to that peaceful place anytime I choose.

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Misty morning and a dip in the río de Maroñas en route to Santa Mariña

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The first reward for delaying our departure till daylight came just minutes after we left Negreira.

Thick morning mist swirled and dipped around the church and graveyard of San Xulián up on the hill, luring us off the path and in through the gothic gates of the cemetery. The Galician style of stacking graves five storeys high means they tower dramatically above you while the plastic flowers and marble feel cold, regimented and forbidding. There’s very little green here, other than the wild flowers that have found a foothold, so they’re very different to the warmth of the graveyards I know. These feel much more final.

P1040849We spent an hour here, reading names on stones, enjoying the shady shapes and taking photographs, while the sun tried in vain to force its way through the mist.

When we left we climbed steadily upwards and looked down from the warmth of sunlight into misty valleys. There was no rush on wooded, gentle paths, but by the time we reached the first cafe in Vilasarío it was late and we had walked 13k so we were hungry for breakfast, a delicious Spanish omelette of onion and potatoes with bread and cafe con leche. I love the traditions of the camino, the immediate peeling off of socks and boots to let overheated feet breath and recover while you eat and drink. No one turns an eye.

We had decided to take four days to reach Finisterre and were meeting our friends in an albergue in Santa Mariña in the afternoon, but a couple of kilometres before we reached the village I turned a corner to find a bridge over the rio de Maroñas, and my friend Helen already IMG_2425paddling in the cool, clear water. Rucksacks and schedules were abandoned; we didn’t care if the next albergue was full and other pilgrims took our beds. The restorative power of icy water meant our legs and feet were fit for at least another 20k if necessary.

The old albergue in the centre of the village looked welcoming and the hospitalero was keen for our euros, but we searched the rooms in vain for our Irish and Australian friends and trooped off, a little disappointed, to the noisy place on the busy road where we were served cabbage and bean soup and will be sleeping in a low room with mouldy walls. Rehydrating on cervezas and an evening of laughter – not least about the dubious contents of the washing line – made up for the tastelessness of the poorest pilgrim menu I’ve ever encountered. Not everything on the camino is perfect but accepting what comes your way is part of this experience.

Maybe I won’t hear the snorers tonight…

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Rivers, ruins and bridges: the road from Santiago to Negreira

IMG_2368 There weren’t many pilgrims on the road this morning. Or maybe they’d all left early, leaving us trailing in their wake. My friends Doug, Pam and John certainly did. They intended to leave at 6am, they told us over paella in a restaurant in the old city last night, in order to get to Negreira before the heat of the afternoon. I felt only a momentary flicker of guilt at my decision to loiter until daylight then daunder alone through the outskirts of the city, past the park and along empty paths.

It was a stark contrast to the Camino Frances where there were always people alongside, ahead or behind, the crunch of a boot on gravel or soil, the sound of voices or a swish of a cyclist screaming Buen Camino. But I enjoyed the peace and the ruins of old buildings so close to the city,  the living decay of stones covered in ivy and roofs burst open by growing trees. The medieval Ponte Maceira over the river Tambre was an oasis. There were palm trees, a still heron on a stone, clear water still running through the ruins of a mill.

It was only  22k to Negreira but for a first day it was enough. My feet were hot and my legs ached for the final kilometre we trudged through the hard pavements of the town. Our Australian friends had P1040831secured beds in the Mesquita albergue and I chose an upper bunk as far as possible from the known snorers in our midst.Friendship can be a fickle thing when decibel levels transcend even the finest earplugs.

But before sleep we needed  food, drink and … exercise! So we meandered beyond the supermercados and modern buildings to find a shaded park and a disturbing sculpture of an emigre leaving his family, a symbol of the waves of emigration from Galicia all through the centuries. It was reminiscent of so many paintings of the Highland clearances, the woman clutching a baby, an older child tugging at his father’s clothes, imploring him to stay. But in this one the father’s legs appeared to be rotting and his skin hanging off. Maybe he’d have been advised to stay behind and let his much healthier looking wife set off to seek her fortune?

 

The countdown to Camino Finisterre

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I begin my walk to the End of the World tomorrow.

It’s a daunting thought, but yellow arrows and scallop shells will be my guide down windy cobbled streets, through remote villages and eucalyptus woods, past ruins and stone crosses, up steep hills (always more up than down) all the way along the ancient pilgrim routes of rural Galicia, to the sea.

And from where I’m standing in the ornate stone square below the scaffolded spires of Santiago Cathedral, Finisterre is only around 55 miles away, give or take the odd ambiguous arrow or early morning digression.

It’s been two years since I was last here, and every day since then I’ve thought about my journey in the footsteps of millions of pilgrims who crossed over the Pyrenees and walked all the way across Spain to reach this cathedral that was built to the glory of Sant Iago, Saint James, whose relics lie in a silver casket inside. The camino to Finisterre may not be a true pilgrimage but even in pre Christian times it was one of Europe’s most significant spiritual sites; a special destination.

So I’m excited about starting another journey in the wake of peoples who came to search or to dream.  The yellow arrows and the brass shells leading through Santiago’s cobbled streets brings back strong memories of friends, tired feet, sweat, laughter, vino tinto, pilgrim food and the perpetual horrors of bedbugs, blisters and snorers. They also promise freedom and perspective, the prospect of adventure, chance encounters, the satisfaction of physical strength, and the time for reflection. It’ll be different this time, much shorter, and I’ll miss my old friends and those special days in the autumn of 2012.

But in the morning I’ll fill my water bottle, pack an orange, heave on my mochila and set off. I’ve looked out the first arrow already but – unlike two years ago – I won’t start out tomorrow wearing a head torch. I’ll save the walking till daylight as I don’t want to miss anything this time.

I can’t wait to hear the first “Buen Camino”.

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Santiago Cathedral under restoration and wraps

Walking to the end of the world

Two years ago this week I heaved on my pack, left St Jean Pied de Port in France and set off on a track over the Pyrenees. I walked for 500 miles,  all the way across Spain.

Or almost. Five hundred miles took me no further than Santiago de Compostella. In my mind it had always been the final destination, the culmination of my month-long pilgrimage along the paths and roads of rural Spain and its villages, meseta, woods, towns and cities .

Some of my friends rested a day in Santiago then carried on walking and many others took a bus trip to the coast.  I did neither. I just needed to absorb the atmosphere of the ancient place after the weeks of sweat, pain, heat, friendship and laughter involved in reaching it. I felt that rushing on and doing something else would diminish the pilgrimage experience that had been a month – or indeed years – in the making.

I knew I wanted to go to Finisterre  one day, to experience the “end of the world” like so many pilgrims had done and the only way I wanted to do it was on foot. I knew it would happen, when the time was right.

And in exactly four weeks I’ll be meeting up in Santiago with a few of the people who became my Camino family in Spain in the autumn of 2012.

Irish John, and Doug and Pam from Perth, Australia will be waiting in Cathedral Square (having done parts of the Camino again) when Helen from Sweden and I arrive. And after a vino tinto or two we’ll pull on our boots and set off walking next day, for Finisterre, Muxia and the sea.

Other old friends will be sadly missing but we’ll toast them. Suzanne, Ramon, Donald, Elaine and Bill, Anna and Nikolai, Tasmanian Scott, Lisette, Andreas, Bibi,  Ada (although she might turn up too) Carmen and Nathan and so many others.

Many of these people have influenced these past two years of travel, fun and adventure. I’ve seen Western Australian beaches with Doug and Pam; skated, skied and explored Ontario with Donald, celebrated Canada Day thenBurns Day with him in Scotland; I’ve hunted kilted Jacobites, walked the West Highland Way, drunk tea and whisky with Helen all over the Highlands; shared beers and stories in a Copenhagen park with Bibi and Lisette; seen Denmark by bike and at speed from Anna and Nikolai’s perspective and had lunch with Ada in Glasgow.

My Camino didn’t end in late September 2012; it just keeps on developing. And I’m impatient now to walk again, to renew these  friendships and maybe to forge new ones; to discover where the Way will lead me next.

 

Boots that were made for walking

 

They’re irreplaceable old friends that  have accompanied me for a thousand miles or more. Every step of the way.

I never imagined, when I bought them five years ago, that the distances they’d travel would be so vast or that they’d transport me on adventures that are still reshaping my life. I thought they’d be just occasional acquaintances, brought out to play on odd weekends.

But gradually the high heels and cowboy boots were discarded, the sandals and wellingtons laid aside and for the last two years they’ve been my default footwear, whether it’s climbing hills or boarding the steps of aircraft. Bare feet are the only better option.

They walked the Camino: 500 miles across Spain, climbing high over the Pyrenees and skimming the dust of the Meseta, kicking over woodland tracks and along the sides of hot motorways. They pounded the industrial suburbs of major cities and trod gently on the smoothed stone of ancient cathedrals. They carried me all the way to Santiago.

They walked more warily on the exposed ridges of  New Zealand’s Kepler Track, strapped on snowshoes in the wilds of Ontario and slipped into the stirrups of Ginger to explore the wilderness at the far end of Lake Wakitipu.

But (like their owner, I fear) they’re showing some signs of wear and tear. The once deep, rutted tread is worn smooth and unsafe. Holes have cracked open along the seams and they’re no longer watertight. I worry that their long adventurous days of crossing moors, hill paths, heather and rock are numbered but admire how they have matured and now tell a story of the bumps and scrapes experienced along the way; not least the mushy mess that replaced my little toe for a week in Spain.

But how do you say goodbye to such trusted friends?

Almost guiltily I’ve started to research brands and prices. After five years of skipping the footwear section of outdoor stores, I’m being drawn to pick up and assess the alternatives. I haven’t tried any on but one of these days I’ll have to invest and break in replacements though I’ll never dispose of them, and on dry days and gentle slopes they’ll be taken out of retirement.

Many years ago I tidied the attic and found the tattered trainers and broken skateboards my son had been hoarding. Callously, I  consigned them to the bin. He threatened to leave home unless they were retrieved so I complied, of course, but didn’t understand.

I’m sorry Ali; I get it now.

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The summit of Ben Lomond

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?