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Posts tagged ‘pigrimage’

Pilgrim breakfast in the Parador

P1050151The croissants were scrummy but Breakfast In The Parador wasn’t as grand an experience as you might imagine.

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 P1050143a 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 P1050152dispensed 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.

 

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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.

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?

 

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?

Sharing the last steps

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With just 20km to go I was finding it hard to distill how I was feeling about the whole experience of walking the Camino.

The physical challenge had been relatively easy and the camaraderie and communication with people from varied backgrounds all over the globe had been the best fun I’d had in years. I’d made firm friends and laughed with them in the evenings, improved my fitness, compared feet and blisters, become more tolerant and had time to reflect on what to do, where to go, next.

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And yet … old habits and attitudes die hard. I’d given myself a deadline to reach Santiago in time for the Pilgrim Mass at noon the next day so that I could share the experience with Robbie. And that meant getting up at 5am and finding our way in the darkness through the eucalyptus woods.

We got lost and I got anxious. Maybe I hadn’t learned anything after all!

Finally, after so many days on the road, we caught a glimpse of the spires of the Catedral de Santiago de Compostela.

I felt nervous rather than exhilarated: unsure and unprepared. Our feet were sore and for the first time my back was aching. Walking through the suburbs was P1000621relentless and we were pushed along by a growing stream of day pilgrims, tourists, schoolchildren all focused on the 12 o’clock mass. Everyone seemed to be walking urgently.

The scallop shells led the way, the narrow streets were drawing us through, the excitement was palpable. We kept turning to one another and smiling. And then a square opened before us and magnificently, gloriously the cathedral steps beckoned.

We had arrived.

First Steps

IMG_0755It felt daunting, that first morning, lacing up my boots, strapping on the backpack and self-conciously making my way through the deserted old cobblestone streets of St Jean.

Most of that day’s batch of pilgrims had already left at the crack of dawn to tackle the long trek over the Pyrenees but I’d decided to break myself in gently, walking only as far as the auberge at Orisson, 8km away.

The steep climb towards the mountains began at once: it was hard going but it was on a good road and I could walk at my own pace. I felt the weight of the pack on my back and was grateful that I’d followed all previous pilgrims advice to keep it to a minimum.

And while I had started out alone, by dinnertime that night I’d made friends with Pat and Lola, two Canadian ladies d’un certain age, Peter from Denmark and a loquacious Australian joker called John who nicknamed me “The Renga” in honour of my hair colour. It stuck.

P1000116Americans Brian and Elaine from Buffalo were also there that first night and although we met only intermittently in the weeks that followed, we ended up walking into Santiago 31 days later, just hours apart.

But that first night we all shared food, wine, laughter and our hopes for the journey ahead. After dinner the auberge owner asked people to stand up and say where they were and why they were walking the camino. Most said it was for spiritual or religious reasons so when I announced I had sold my house, given up my work and left a relationship behind there was a cheer!

Later I rolled out my sleeping bag and crawled into a bunk in a room with four mature French lady farmers and a South African girl. One French woman glanced up: “C’est vous!” she exclaimed to me then called to her friends to come and see. They all stared  and eventually explained they’d been “surprised” by my honesty. Or that’s how I chose to interpret their words.

P1000147 I hadn’t slept in communal facilities since schooldays but I was instantly at ease with the companionship and closed my eyes to the accompaniment of French snoring, easily audible above my earplugs.

I had a feeling this was going to be a memorable journey.