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Reaching the high (and low) point

Camino Portuguese Day 4

The map indicated a mountain of Himalayan proportions; a near vertical climb to the top of the Alto da Portela Grande. It was a route grandly described as a “high pass over the mountain ridge”.

And then I looked carefully at the contour lines and realised the summit was only 405m high, which in Scotland barely counts as a hill at all. However a heavy pack meant the rutted track through the trees was heart-thumpingly steep, and the Spanish cyclists who’d whizzed past me 30 minutes earlier shouting a cheery “Buen Camino” had to lift their bikes and manoeuvre them shoulder-high over the rocks. Their noisy machismo and bravado had long since evaporated by the time I’d caught up.

I took a deep breath, changed gear and left them in my wake, pausing for just a few seconds at the stone Cruz dos Francese in the woods near the top. The final push at last brought views into the Coura river valley far below.

But there was no time to linger. More bites on my face this morning meant I needed to reach laundry facilities where I could boil bedding and clothes then roast any lingering bugs in a tumble drier. It took some imaginative miming to explain to the Portuguese manager of the next albergue that I would only stay if he had the necessary machines. We went on a tour and found the essential white appliances then (since i was the first person at the hostel) I stood right there, removed my clothes and emptied them and the contents of my pack into the contraption and turned the dial to maximum. I scurried away in a towel to the shower to wait until they’d done their work.

And so to the bliss and peace of a clean bed.  I’d chosen a quiet corner away from the known snorers but when I returned to the dorm at 9.30pm I discovered the neighbouring bunk was now occupied by the notorious Portuguese Snorer, a man many people have changed hostels to avoid. True to form his bed was already vibrating to deep guttural roars.

I rammed earplugs deep into my head and pulled the pristine bedding over my face. The promise of peace was destroyed. This was going to be another long night .
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Another Way to Santiago

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I thought the Camino had eluded me this year.

The urge to climb high and view the world from Scottish peaks and sleep in green corrie campsites filled my head and heart all spring and summer. It absorbed every scrap of my energy and enthusiasm – and a lot of time when I should really have been working.

And yet. And yet.

Triggered by photographs, long shadows on walls or roads and contact with pilgrim friends on three continents, El Camino has lurked and tugged at my imagination. It’s three years since I first set foot on the Way from St Jean Pied de Port and there hasn’t been a day since when I haven’t reflected on that journey, the people I met and the mark it made on my life.

And now, almost without warning, my backpack is loaded and my heather-scratched boots are patiently waiting at the door. My passport and guidebook are laid out on the table and the departure for my pilgrimage in the footsteps of St James is imminent.

This time I’ll walk along the camino portugués, along the route reputedly walked by Sant Iago himself when he first preached his gospel. Poignantly it’s also the way his body was carried back to be buried in the site now known as Santiago de Compostella.

I’m hoping for a Buen Camino.

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Stretching the miles to Muxía

P1050048The walk to Muxía was long, lush and memorable for its scents. Wild fennel grew abundantly along the borders of the paths when we finally tore ourselves away from Finisterre, after waiting for the sun to rise, admiring John’s freshly created Camino tattoo, checking in at the supermerado for fruit and bread, and saying “hasta luego” one last time to old friends about to scatter across the world. We walked on through the haze of aniseed. It conjured up incongruous images of Pernod in smoky Parisian cafes.

In the deep thick woods and on farm tracks there was the moist autumnal morning scent of ferns, then freshly cut wood, stacked and guarded by dogs at a sawmill. I saw more large dogs on this stretch than any other, and they were often loose and haughtily territorial. We eyed one another suspiciously.

And then suddenly a familiar smell from childhood; the imprinted aroma of sodden hay that’s been lying in the field too long. It was a hazard of Highland summers but seemed impossible in this climate, yet there it lay, flat and dark in shady rotting rows.

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I’d read that this extension of the Camino was poorly marked but I think someone must have just been out with a yellow paint spray because the arrows were strong and clear, all the way to Lires, and the solitary  cafe that was midway on the 30km route. It was just as well I’d had no breakfast because the tortilla served on a huge bocadillo would have fed three – generously. There must have been at least six eggs involved in its creation. I gave it my best try.

I loved the walk over moorland and through the woods but near the end of the long day our route joined the main road and skirted the beautiful Lourida beach where pilgrims were jumping from sand dunes and paddling in waters that are too treacherous for swimming. It felt like a long, weary haul on the hot tarmac through the outskirts of town to find the tourist office where old ladies knitted and another compostella was granted with evidence of stamps from my pilgrim passport. The best hostel in town is Bella Muxia and just beside it is A de Lolo restaurant which serves the poshest pilgrim grub I’ve ever come across! The wine is good too.

But now we’ve reached the end of the road and will have to get a bus back to Santiago tomorrow. There’s still another sunrise to look forward to in the morning  though, maybe up on the rocky hill above the town, and the legendary stone boat down by the sea to explore. It’s not over yet.

And at the end of the road… the Fisterra sunset

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The complimentary churros served with our cafe con leche in one of Cee’s town centre cafes probably slowed us down this morning, after the initial sugar rush had passed. That, and meandering around the colourful market, choosing fresh fruit to eat on the road to Finisterre.

I’d imagined, since we were already at the coast, that it would be a simple stroll along the beach to the end of the world. How naive. I should have learned long ago that when any route has  an opportunity to gain height, it does, and on the Camino you don’t consult the map, you just follow the yellow arrows. They took us upwards, to high vantage points, through Corcubión’s medieval streets and up again to finally catch sight of Finisterre.

I tied my boots to my pack once we clambered back down and reached the beach, and like the pilgrims ahead of me waded barefoot the length of Playa Langosteira, all the way to the edge of town and the first bar, where a cerveza was already poured and waiting. We had arrived.

The hostel we found looked a bit bedbug friendly but, feeling reckless, we stayed nevertheless then lined up for our Compostellas in the pilgrim office, ate, drank and set off again, up another hill in the dusk to the legendary lighthouse, past statues of pilgrims, crosses and all the commercial paraphernalia of a tourist hotspot.

But as the sun started to sink it wasn’t hard to find a quiet rock out on the headland to sit and savour the experience.

 

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When the last rays sank into the water there was spontaneous applause. The five amigos hugged when we found one another then we walked – one limping – back down the hill to celebrate the sun, life and the adventure.

 

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?

 

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.

 

Riders in the storm – and a kidnapping in Triacastela

I’d been emailing my son for four weeks, waxing lyrical about the heat and endless hours of Spanish sunshine. I’d written about the regular stops at cafés, the cathedrals, culture, wine and food. So, lured by balmy temperatures and the alfresco lifestyle, he agreed to come and walk with me for the last 120km to Santiago.

And then, just as he was flying into the country, we entered Galicia.

Image 2We climbed to the top of O’Cebreiro then higher to Alto do Poio where, at 4380ft, Galicia showed us it was made of sterner and more demanding stuff then the regions we had left behind. Waterproofs went on for the first time in four weeks and instead of shielding me from the sun, my trusty (tied down) Tilley hat had to keep out the worst of the storm that lashed down on my head.

P1000497We shared some of the narrow paths with horses – caballos – today and the smell of leather, thornproof waterproofs and damp animals was intoxicating. But for once I wasn’t envious of the riders in their heavy ponchos who looked cold and uncomfortable as the rain poured down and they had to negotiate their way around the endless stream of drenched travellers.

But being a Scot I was thrilled by the onset of the spectacular wild weather and found myself singing John Bunyan’s  “To be a Pilgrim” for most of the 10 long kilometers down the hill to Triacastela, on paths that were being washed away into streams that filled our boots with water and gravel.

ImageThe nearest albergues were full when we arrived but at one an old Spanish lady called Olga loitered near the desk. She beckoned and urged us to follow her into the street where we found ourselves hijacked in her rickety car and speeding down the road to some (costly) bunks in a renovated garage! In dire emergency, perhaps, it would have been a Godsend. But it hadn’t yet come to that. We escaped.

In the end we waded in to Albergue Aitzenea, a stone building where our old pals Nathan and Carmen greeted us as they sat writing at a table. I bagged a bunk for Robbie and we all went to dinner round the corner with French Jeanine who had taken photos as we walked. Then Robbie arrived in a taxi and was integrated into camino life with an evening of laughter, stories, wine and a 10-euro three-course meal.

And the downpour outside made it feel just like home.

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Mussels, figs, painkillers … and poetry in the street

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We didn’t often stop for a proper lunch but today, after 25 hot and not entirely pain-free kilometers, we threw off our packs and sat down at a street table in Cacabelos and ordered tapas: juicy mussels, potato croquettes, bread, water (with painkiller) and wine. Mmmmm.  The waitress brought us a complementary bag of ripe figs from the garden too and those we ate at the table were delicious. The others didn’t travel too well.

The food slowed us down so it felt like a hard slog through the endless vineyards P1000533where workers were harvesting grapes, past a sculpture workshop and its strange colourful work outside and finally into Villafranca where we searched in vain for the “albergue with nice gardens”. Turned out it had been burned down and the gardens abandoned to weeds.

The last albergue on the outskirts of town was “completo” but Libia, the young co-owner served us tea and biscuits while she called around local guest houses and hotels. Everything was full, apart from the  “boutique” hotel, Las Doñas back down by the bridge.

So… the choice was between heaving P1000550on our packs and limping on to the next town 12m away or succumbing to white sheets, a bathroom with toiletries, clean fluffy towels and an all singing-dancing shower. Tough decision.

I met an old man in the street later that evening who was anxious to point out a plaque on a house marking the birthplace of the Spanish “famoso” poet, Enrique Gil y Carrasco. We conversed for some time (despite my limited Spanish) about P1000454national poets, I heard about the pride he felt about this native son and he listened to a wee bit of Robbie Burns right there in the fading light of the pilgrim way. We parted with great affection and hand shaking.

It’s moments like these that make the camino unforgettable.