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Posts from the ‘Travelling’ Category

Sure-footed in 2017?

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I took the first tumble of the year in this morning’s long shadows.

January’s low, cool sun accompanied me for seven miles along an empty coastal path. It was time and space enough to reflect at last on the year that has just ended. The year of words.

I’ve been absent here because work words took priority. They also took their toll. The day job on a newspaper; editing of broadcast interviews; tweaking the novel; updating Twitter; and checking in on Facebook . It left my eyes screen-saturated and begging for darkness.

There were a few short adventures in the hills I would have shared: a remote summer camp beside a Highland loch and autumn days spent climbing high for views above Scotland. But they were too few. My whole focus last year was on work. On not stumbling.

And now I’m faced with an enforced break. I have annual leave I need to use or lose, so tentative planning has begun for three weeks in New Zealand, a mix of catching up with family, wilderness walking and work.

When I tumbled this morning (to a soft landing), my head was somewhere along the Kepler Track, the high ridge route I walked with my son last time I visited. I was mentally packing my rucksack, locating my tent , boots, head torch and sleeping mat. Scotland’s mud and ice were 12,000 miles away. And then, quite spectacularly, they weren’t.

Happy New Year.

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Traversing the Meseta

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We cross fields of green on a red clay track that winds to the horizon’s azure sky. There’s no rain on Spain’s high plains this week, not in daytime at least, but in places the damp mud clings and is carried ahead, heavy on the boots of the trudging pilgrim army.

Four years on from my first trek across the endless flat Meseta, this is an unworldly time of morning mists, lush crops and diversions with new companions to unfamiliar villages.

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In the empty landscape there’s just the constant heartbeat of boots on gravel; companionship over cervesa; secrets shared in a brief collision of lives that leave a deep imprint of sound and touch.

Walking away always takes longer.

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A Window on the World

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We were sitting in a remote village cafe when Albrecht rolled up his sleeves to show me the multiple red rows of bed bug bites.

“No more albergues for me,” he said.

Of course. A lightbulb moment. I knew at once that there would be no more albergues on this trip for me either. I needed sleep, peace, somewhere clean and time for all the blotchy bites on my face, neck and shoulders to heal. Late that afternoon I checked in to a small hotel in Caldas de Reis, peeled off my pack, lay on the crisp white bed and listened to the silence. It was the best 28 euros I’ve ever spent.

Later I drank beers and ate with my Canadian, German and Swedish friends. We soaked tired feet and legs in the public hot springs of this pretty spa town and when it got dark we drank hot chocolate in the bread shop and ate yet more pastries. And then I waved them goodnight and retreated to the calm of my solitary space.

All was well with the world when I set off next morning. And when my journey was hijacked it got even better.  A man called from the window of a school building as I was walking past and asked if I’d come in and meet the children. “It’s our window on the world,” he said. ” We invite pilgrims in to tell us about their countries. It’s our project. Please speak to the chicos in Scottish.”

Two Croatian girls came in too and I’ve no idea what they told the kids (in Croatian)  but I turned to stereotypes and mimed bagpipes, described shaggy Highland cows with long horns, did a little Scottish dance and – for the teacher – focused on whisky. And then the kids crowded round for photographs, we exchanged email and Facebook details, the teacher showed us his scrapbook of postcards from every corner of the globe, we all hugged and five minutes later we set off back on our journeys.

We hadn’t even taken off our packs, but it had been the most magical moment of the week. I’ve fallen back in love with the camino.

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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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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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Life and death on the Portuguese


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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.