Skip to content

Posts tagged ‘pilgrim’

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.


Misty morning and a dip in the río de Maroñas en route to Santa Mariña


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…


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.


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?

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass


Without breaking our stride we walked straight up the steps, out of the sunshine and into the Cathedral.

It was noisy and busy which made it difficult to concentrate on the enormity of the moment. I had been 31 days on the road, walking towards this place.

I unhooked my pack, sank into a pew, undid my boots and waited…

For what, I wasn’t sure. I was grateful to be here of course; for the strength and fitness that made it possible to walk 500 miles; for the friends made along the way; for the story and tradition of the road we had walked and for the special gift of Robbie’s company over the last week.

We wanted to share the experience with his brother so we called him in New Zealand.  Robbie went to find water and still I sat there, gazing at the extravagant gold altarpiece built to glorify St James. Waiting.

It was only 10.45am but already people were filling the 1000 or so seats. Friends and familiar faces from along the way arrived, wandering dazed down the aisles, and we greeted one another and hugged. It was emotional. Visitors, pilgrims, nuns and locals packed into every space and still more arrived and crammed in around the walls. The chatter and sense of expectation grew louder. Then we were hushed.

And the nun sang.

IMG_0766The pure sound of a solitary voice echoed round the ancient walls. We listened, captivated,  then tried to copy her as she taught us to sing alleluia to the beautiful cadences.  The magnificent organ heralded the arrival of the priests. And the mass began.

At the end the huge incense burner, the Botafumeiro was lowered to the fanfare of the organ then the tiraboleiros – the red coated attendants – took up their positions on the ropes and began to pull downwards. The choir sang. I hadn’t dared hope we would arrive on a day when the Botafumeiro was swung. Scores of people rushed up the aisle to watch and photograph it as it picked up speed and rocketed over our heads, drifting streams of smoke as it flew.

P1000638And then it was over. We laced up our boots and loaded on our packs.

We still had to find beds for the night.

Storm clouds gathering in Galicia

P1000562The bed bugs were closing in.

The chattering about bites was getting louder and albergues had started to hand out plastic covers for mattresses. I had been using a pyrethrin-impregnated cover on every mattress since I started but knew it was just a matter of time before my luck ran out.

And at La Faba they were far too close for comfort. I heard an American girl complain to the staff in the morning that she had been bitten, pointing out the telltale four red lumps in a line on her arm. The rest of us cautiously rolled up our sleeping bags, wondering what we might be transporting to our next stop.

But what a great, hospitable place La Faba had been. This borderland with Galicia meant more rain so the hillsides were green and P1000561tranquil around the small, hot villages down in the Valcarce valley and the little rivers clean and sparkling. The views above our heads were spectacular too, in part because of the unbelievable intrusion of the motorway high above the towns and trees.

We enjoyed a superb evening at the bar-restaurant just along from the German-run albergue with some great folk including John from Chicago and Ed and Linda from Boston.

But the weather was breaking. Storms were forecast and we had the rest of the mountain to climb first thing in the morning. Bed bugs or not, it was time to rest.

Hitting the high point

P1000493We climbed to just below 5000ft this morning, all the way up to the simple iron cross, the Cruz de Ferro, and the last 500ft or so took forever as I kept turning round to watch the sun rising behind and below the highest point of the whole camino.

Thousands of pilgrims have left stones or tokens here so we clambered over the rough rocky track to the base of the cross for photographs then lingered on this glorious early morning as the sun grew higher in the sky. It was downhill then for the next 20km and having climbed so far and so high I was reluctant to leave the mountains.

Suzanne and I took the steep path together down through the bushes and trees and paused to look in at the settlement at Manjarin, a romantic, hippy mountain hut of wind chimes, water and organic teas.

The plan had been to walk to Ponferrada but after so long on such wonderful (but blistering P1000496hot) sheltered tracks through the valley we didn’t want to spend a night in a city so turned in instead to the Santa Marina albergue on the outskirts of Molinaseca. Proper single beds and a (not very efficient) washing machine were our reward and later we enjoyed a quiet dinner with lots of wine and laughter at a balmy outside table by the old stone bridge.

But then ensued the “war of the windows”, with the Dutch, Scots and Canadians opting for fresh air and the French contingent desiring no draughts. How we conform to our national stereotypes!

I fell asleep before it was resolved. I could still walk and nothing else mattered.


Cowboy café and an exploding toe

P1000494I had been lucky. For three weeks I had been overtaking pilgrims limping in agony with damaged tendons or infected blisters. I’d listened to accounts of bed bug bites, strains, shin splints and knees that just couldn’t take any more. I’d seen boots abandoned by the roadside. And some injuries were so bad people had been hospitalized or had to go home.

The solitary blister on the little toe of my  left foot had been a slight inconvenience for a few days and I’d doctored it by adding layer after layer of Compeed as protection. Today, though, the pressure was growing and there was no longer enough space in my boots to comfortably contain the swelling.

I limped to Santa Catalina de Sonoza for our first stop then stumbled on to the cowboy café at El Ganso. Cowboys always bring a smile to my face!

But when we reached Rabanal (after 21k) I sank down on the doorstep of the grocery shop and really wanted to stop for the day. However my companion insisted we stick to the plan and so we set off limping up the long hill towards Foncebadón another 6km away.

IMG_0751Suddenly I felt the blister that comprised my entire little toe explode in my boot! I could walk no further.

I peeled off my boots and socks then explored the mushy mess at the end of my foot then rummaged frantically in my pack: the only option was to wear my sandals with many socks and the strap as loose as possible.  What relief – it worked!

Walking was slow though and there weren’t many beds left by the time we arrived in Foncebadón, but we didn’t end up sleeping down in the sheds beside the goats like the people who arrived even later.

There was no warm water so the cold shower was a short, refreshing one; the beers were chilled, the communal meal delicious and the vino tinto made an excellent painkiller before bed at 8.30pm.

Blister? Ah, that would be tomorrow’s problem.

The clandestine “critter” of Santibanez

P1000468Oh, it was a long haul: 43km no less on a hot day and with an increasingly bad blister on my little toe.  I left León alone just after 6, following a group of around 10 pilgrims as they negotiated their way through the suburbs in the dark, then headed out over moorland to Mazarife where (after 20km) I had the best breakfast ever: tostada with butter and marmalade, zumo de naranja , café and limonada. I sat on a terrace enjoying the ambiance with a couple from North West Territories when along the road wandered Richard. I had vowed the last time we talked that I was having a rest day.

“Have you taken the bus?” he asked incredulously as he sat down to join us. The crack was good and I was tempted to have an easy day but an email told me the team would stop and wait for me in Santibanez. Another 20km lay ahead. I laced up my boots.

P1000259Just when I was wearying I rounded a corner to find another pal, Patrick at a cafe table having a late lunch. We talked for an hour, I rehydrated on sparkling water then we walked together to Hospital de Orbigo, then just after we crossed the beautiful long bridge he peeled off to find a bed.  I walked alone then under the searing sun, limping and aching through the endless fields of maize and through a wood until I finally saw Santibanez below me. That’s where I paused and savoured the moment.

Swedish Helen welcomed me as I entered the albergue covered in sweat and dust. My feet were massaged and I washed my clothes as I showered in the outside facilities. We enjoyed a delicious communal meal of salad, risotto and melon then sat in the garden listening to songs on an ipod till late with Helen, Donald, Sander, Simon, Anna and Nicoli.

It wasn’t until it was all quiet in the packed dorm that we heard it – the constant pitter-patter of very tiny feet. We shone the torch under the bunks: it wasn’t a rat or a mouse and it stopped dead in the light of the beam, so we left the torch shining in its eyes and finally fell asleep. We were never able to identify the mysterious hamster-sized “critter” which gratefully escaped back to the garden when a roommate opened the door in the morning.

Tomorrow would need to be an easier day.