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Posts tagged ‘travel’

Sure-footed in 2017?

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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.

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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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Catch a hurricane by the tail…

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… and hitch an effortless ride on the swings.

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You’re never too old for a play park or climbing trees. Right?

Reminiscing about the Ridge on a dreich Scottish day

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I never tire of looking up to sharp mountain ridges but I’m nervous of exposure so New Zealand’s Kepler Track is well outwith my comfort zone. But with a bit of brutal encouragement from my son, I did it. The memories – which we shared last night via Skype – will last a lifetime. And they brighten the bleakest of Scotland’s November days.

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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.

 

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.

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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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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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