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Posts tagged ‘pilgrimage’

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.

 

Celebrating in Santiago

P1000625We sat down to tapas and wine at a sunny street café, just whiling away a couple of hours, watching the Santiago world saunter by. What a luxury!

Robbie and I ate calamari, gambas in garlic, olives and pimientos de patron, washed down with vino blanco and cervesa then wandered slowly along to the Pilgrim Office to join the queue for our Compostellas. It stretched all the way up the stairs and there, just arrived, were some of the best pals we had walked with over the previous weeks! We had a great reunion and as they went in search of beds we duly visited the relics of St James and wandered the streets of this hard-to-navigate old city.

P1000633We all gathered in the evening; Nathan and Carmen, Irish John, Donald, Suzanne, Brian, Elaine, Patricia and so many others at a huge happy table. A few us went on for a drink in a late bar then, under a full moon in the cathedral square, we gathered for photos beside the central shell embedded in the stone cobbles which marked the end of the Camino.

Robbie caught a flight early in the morning then I went back to the Cathedral while it was still almost empty, such a contrast to the day before. I sat quietly in a pew near the front, just reading, resting and absorbing the atmosphere for more than two hours, barely noticing the gathering crowds or that I was gradually being squeezed into a corner of the seat.

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The rest of the day was spent meeting up with pals in the streets, sitting down to share wine and tapas and then drinking mojitos till late with friends including Andreas, Lisette and Bibi.

John and Patricia were on the same flight as me to Stanstead where we hugged and said goodbye.

And it was only then that I realised my Camino was finally over.

I had my pilgrim passport full of stamps, a slimmer, stronger body, a journal and brain stuffed full of memories, experiences, email addresses and phone numbers.

Besides, I wasn’t really travelling alone: as my itchy back testified, I still had the company of the bed bugs.

A solitary voice and tears at the Pilgrim Mass

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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.

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.

Slowing down on the home straight

P1000582Spain or not, my Scottish boy felt he’d earned a traditional fried breakfast of bacon, egg and toast by the time we reached the first café in Portomarín. And then cervesa at lunchtime (while we sheltered from the constant rain).

We were frozen and soaked through by the time we reached Palas de Rei so stopped at the first albergue we reached. We got bunks in the huge industrial-scale Pavillón where 112 beds are packed into two huge rooms. It was pretty horrible; everyone’s clothes were soaking wet and by the time I put my name on the list, I was 19th in the queue for the washer and dryer so there was virtually no chance of leaving in dry gear in the morning.

The bed bug bites itched all night and the next day my left shin started to ache. We were getting so close to the end now and by the time we reached Arzúa a farmacia was top of the list. We needed bandages, antihistamine for the bites and Compeed – the most popular P1000602items, it would appear. They were certainly conveniently situated on the counter!

P1000606And then we made a great decision: rather than walking the final 40km into Santiago in one day we would break it into two. So we spent a day lollygagging (as our North American friends described it) only as far as Arca o  Pino, through woodlands of eucalyptus, stopping regularly for breaks and savouring the easy walking.  Then Robbie and I spend our last night on the road eating pizza and sharing stories, experiences and photos with Nathan and Carmen.

Tomorrow morning, after more than a month on the road, we would walk the final 20km into Santiago in time for Pilgrim Mass at noon.