We walked in single file, upwards through a maze of trees, strung out like pilgrims on the road to Santiago. Music whispered from the branches , light played on ruins and, once inside up crumbling steps, candles Read more
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.
It was Easyjet’s fault: the flight from Edinburgh had been delayed by four hours so we’d missed the speeches, the unveiling of the work and an “auld alliance”get together that had spilled outside to enjoy a warm, convivial French evening.
The venue – a cave-room in an ancient French fort – echoed and magnified the hissing, haunting, sound-light-movement installation. My photos don’t do it justice. It’s a powerful work and it made me reflect on the all-out turbinisation of our irreplaceable Scottish wilderness. There will soon be no view from any hilltop that isn’t sullied by windmills, pylons, dams or roads. I hope Robbie’s work can help influence a wider audience when it is on show in Glasgow in October.
There was more to explore in Lyon too. Flights of aerobic steps led forever upwards to the white basilica on the hill, while sculptures, graffiti and the new metallic monster museum graced the banks of the Rhōne and the Saōne. All of it art.
We specialise in recycling stones in Scotland, as our ruined churches, castles, cathedrals and crofts can testify. They each have their own unique atmosphere, some bleak and sad, others proud and magnificent even in stark destruction. But with our troubled history of battles and Clearances, few ruins feel as peaceful as Deer Abbey. This ancient site was inhabited by monks for 340 years, until Protestant reformers did their utmost to remove all traces of Catholicism from the country in 1560.
So it too has been through troubled times and most of the stone was stolen to build a mausoleum. And yet the vibes here are calm and tranquil. The monks may have been banished, but they left their mark.
The splendid state hotel which now stands on one side of Santiago’s beautiful Cathedral Square was originally built in 1499 as a Hospital for pilgrims who travelled from all corners of Europe to pay homage to St James at the neighbouring Cathedral.
When they reached the end of their long journeys dirty, hungry and exhausted they were given food, drink, a bed for three days and – if they needed it – medical help. That tradition endured over the centuries but in the 1950s the hospital was converted to the swanky hotel that now attracts a prestigious clientele and fosters an air of indulgence and superiority.
Yet the custom of helping pilgrims who arrive in the city has been honoured in a token way by giving the frst 10 peregrinos who turn up each day a free breakfast, lunch or dinner. The rule is that you line up with your compostella as proof of your pilgrimage (but minus your backpack) at the stable door and wait to be led inside and manoeuvred swiftly through the smart quarters to a staff door which leads up a flight of stairs to the kitchens.
We stood in a humble line beside stacks of plates and trays of semi-prepared food as waiters whisked past balancing trays and contemptuous sneers. I can’t imagine a British hotel kitchen allowing half a dozen random people to hang around near uncovered food, but it was a fascinating insight into continental hygiene standards.
It was also an insight into how it must feel to be on the receiving end of charity. We could all have afforded to go into the old town to buy our breakfasts at a cafe but chose to experience the medieval tradition as part of our camino. Maybe the staff are overworked or just tired of people turning up in their kitchens three times a day, but sadly the token “charity” wasn’t dispensed with speed, grace or even a smile.
Yet nothing was lost. The pastries and coffee were good and, as always on the camino, it was the multilingual conversation between strangers that was the memorable part of the half hour we spent in the Pilgrim’s Dining Room at the top of the back stairs of Santiago’s posh Parador.
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 Ermita 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.
A 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 shower, 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.
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.
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 paddling 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…