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Posts tagged ‘pilgrimage’

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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Savouring the last leg to Santiago

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I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.

Of course.

And I enjoyed the little peppers as much as I loved the town of Padrón which is saturated in the legends of St James. It’s here he supposedly preached in Spain for the first time, in a quiet spot high up on the hill overlooking the town. I walked up to the simple statue and cross that marks the spot on the rock far away from the bustle of the town below. And I felt a peace there that’s been missing on most of this camino.

I felt it less in the Igrexa de Santiago church which houses another of the great legends, the original stone mooring post to which the boat carrying St James was tied at the quayside on the river. And, at the other end of the Saint’s story there’s a roadside monument showing the arrival of the his sarcophagus as it passed through.

In the morning, after breakfast in a pilgrim cafe by the ancient stone bridge, four of us set off to walk together on the last leg of our journey. There were roads and traffic and noise, but there were trees and bridges and peaceful places too. We weren’t in a rush for the walking to end and met friends who also stopped countless times before they took the last steps into Santiago.

And when I turned a corner on the medieval streets and the familiar sharp spires of the cathedral rose into view I felt the smile spreading over me. It felt like coming home.

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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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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


Camino Portuguese Day 1

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.

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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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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The countdown to Camino Finisterre

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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”.

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Santiago Cathedral under restoration and wraps

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.