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…
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”.
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.
Like escapees from an unruly chess board, the march of death climbs up and over the hill. They’re grandiose tombstones in an elemental place ; oversized queens, bishops and knights heading for the shallow, sandy waters of Tongue Bay. Next stop the Atlantic Ocean.
Our day was long and unhurried. We’d no heavy packs on our backs and no transport south until tomorrow. Misty views to the hills beyond the Kyle meant walking across the long causeway was slow, and I pitied the cars and vans their flashes of scenery while we paused every few steps to breathe in ever changing Ben Loyal. Ahead of us all the time was the stark cemetery on the hill.
No insects pestered us today but still I itched. New red blotches had burst into life. And just above my knee this morning I discovered a tick already swelling, its jaws firmly clamped in my flesh. I wielded my new tick-tweezers and twisted then squashed the parasite, watching my blood seep out and wondering if this one carried Lyme’s Disease.
The graveyard was a haven of heather and mosses, wild flowers and a strong rusty lichen that was stark against the cool grey stone; Caloplaca marina, I think. Calos in Greek means nice, placa is shield, so Caloplaca ‘beautiful patches’. And so they are.
Slowly the tide emptied, leaving vast sandy flats, exposing acres of seaweed and racks of farmed mussel beds. Tractors and trailers crept over the soft sand, seagulls called on them for scraps and the clear northern light bounced against the beach.
I had just a few hours of wandering, watching and listening while, up on the hill, the tombstones maintained a much longer vigil. A hundred years, and counting…