I took the first tumble of the year in this morning’s long shadows.
January’s low, cool sun accompanied me for seven miles along an empty coastal path. It was time and space enough to reflect at last on the year that has just ended. The year of words.
I’ve been absent here because work words took priority. They also took their toll. The day job on a newspaper; editing of broadcast interviews; tweaking the novel; updating Twitter; and checking in on Facebook . It left my eyes screen-saturated and begging for darkness.
There were a few short adventures in the hills I would have shared: a remote summer camp beside a Highland loch and autumn days spent climbing high for views above Scotland. But they were too few. My whole focus last year was on work. On not stumbling.
And now I’m faced with an enforced break. I have annual leave I need to use or lose, so tentative planning has begun for three weeks in New Zealand, a mix of catching up with family, wilderness walking and work.
When I tumbled this morning (to a soft landing), my head was somewhere along the Kepler Track, the high ridge route I walked with my son last time I visited. I was mentally packing my rucksack, locating my tent , boots, head torch and sleeping mat. Scotland’s mud and ice were 12,000 miles away. And then, quite spectacularly, they weren’t.
Happy New Year.
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.
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.
I ate Pimientos de Padrón in Padrón.
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.
… and hitch an effortless ride on the swings.
You’re never too old for a play park or climbing trees. Right?
The 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 a 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 dispensed 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.
The 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.
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.