Tuesday, 31 May 2011

We´ve Arrived!

Santiago de Compostela, Tuesday 31st May 2011

Yesterday it rained, for just the second time in thirty-two days. We have been blessed with extremely good weather. After the shower had passed, I prayed - with all the grace I could muster - asking God to clear the rain overnight and telling Him I´d like to enter Santiago in the fullness of His sunshine. He has answered my prayer.

The day began overcast and misty but the weather openend up into a fine and sunny, but cool and slightly breezy, day as the morning progressed.

In the last two days we have walked through some eucalyptus woods. These might have reminded me of home, but they didn´t really. The environment just isn´t the same.

The walk was most pleasant, but the reality is that we are ready to reach Santiago. When we did finally enter the city there was no definite response either of joy, jubilation, or even anti-climax. It was more a case of ¨Well, here we are!¨ The action, I think, lay principally with the legs and feet. It was quite a walk from the city boundary to the old, historic quarter, and the feet were rather saying, Ënough. It´s time to get there.¨ Eventually, we were there. We actually approached the cathedral from the rear (had we missed a turn somewhere?) As we made our way down the final few hundred metres, we were suddenly rushed by two German ladies whom we had walked and talked with from time to time along the way. They greeted us, hugged us, and congratulated us profusely. This was something that was to be repeated continuously through the rest of the day. It was Leon all over again. But this time, it was more so. Is this Camino? It is certainly a vital part of it.

When we turned into the cathedral square, the sight of this mighty, majestic building was something to behold. After photos we were more than ready to seek out our hotel. This wasn´t the easiest task but eventually we found it and installed ourselves. And it was central - good!

After a most refreshing shower we headed back into the cathedral quarter. Again, more greeting, hugging, and congratulating. We ate a simple lunch and proceeded to the peregrino office for our Compostela. In front of the  office we met Stefano from Sardinia whom we hadn´t seen for about two weeks. It was like greeting a long, lost son. The queue at the peregrino office wasn´t long and, in a short time, I was presented with my Compostela. Reading it caused the briefest emotion to rise in me, the only response I´ve felt so far to the completion of the Camino.

On our return to the hotel we were pleasantly surprised to find Nils and Lily, the Danish couple who now live in Montpellier were also staying there. The way in which we meet so many people we know, in a totally foreign city is amusing, a bit bewildering, and totally wonderful.

Tomorrow is attendance at the 12 o´clock pilgrim mass, followed by meeting up with my brother Edward, his wife Kate and son, Huw who have come out from UK to spend some time with me. This could well be an emotional day. I´ll keep you posted.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

Shall we eat?

Arzua, Sunday 29th May 2011

All over the world food is essential to the maintenance of life, and Spain is no exception. On the Camino calories are burned up at perhaps a greater rate than normal, so eating cannot be ignored.

Breakfast is desayuno which, interestingly, is not especially a hearty meal. Often the Spanish seem to get by with a coffee and a sweet cake or bun. A tasty variation is tortilla. This is a type of flan or tart containing egg, potato and perhaps cheese. A slice of this will be served with a slice of bread. Bread is an almost universal accompaniment. My preference is to walk a little (say 4 Km) then stop for a coffee and toast (tostada). This seems to give me a kick start for the next few Kms.

The main meal of the day may be taken at lunch time or in the evening. Because of the siesta, Spanish evening eating usually starts at about 10 o´clock. They graciously make an exception for pilgrims who can be in bed as early as 8:30pm. A Spanish speciality is menu del dia. I don´t know if any other country does something similar. It´s extremely good value. The menu del dia is a meal for a set price. This is generally 10 Euros (approx 14AUD), but sometimes a little less. Rarely is it more. The meal comprises three courses - 1st, 2nd, and a sweet course together with water or wine. There is a choice generally of four or five dishes for each course. (I´ve just checked the menu of the pension I´m staying at and they have about 8 choices for each course! The problem is to translate the Spanish in order to know what you´re ordering!!)

Typical first course choices would be soup (delicious garlic soup, or vegetable, lentils or chicken with noodles), or salad (with just about everything you could imagine in a salad), or a pasta dish, or perhaps a local speciality (such as pulpo - octopus). Portions are generous. Indeed, it is often tempting to stop at the first course.

The second course may be chicken, or pork, or fish (trout is my favourite), or steak - invariably served with chips (and sometimes salad), or a pasta dish.

Favourites for dessert are creme caramel or ice cream. If fruit is offered it is likely to be an orange, or an apple, or a banana.

In addition to menu del dia most bars serve a variety of sandwiches (bocadillas), which are nothing like Australian sandwiches. Your choice of filling comes in half a loaf of crusty bread - very filling but quite a challenge!

Tapas (individual dishes e.g. calamari, with bars having their own specialities) are also very filling. They can be meal on their own, needing to be ordered one at a time - and often not going beyond one.

On the sweeter side, the regional speciality is tarta de Santiago. This is a plate-cake, cooked in a pan similar to a pizza pan. It is pleasantly sweet (but not over so) with a distinctive almond taste. Yummie!

Well, that´s something of the cuisine of this part of the world. It´s not comprehensive, but it´s a good start.

Is anybody hungry?

Friday, 27 May 2011

The way ¨The Way" works

Portomarin, Friday 27th May 2011

Anyone can join the Camino at any place, walk as far (or as near) as they wish, and then go home!

Most people walk with a destination in mind and by far the most common destination is Santiago de Compostela, the cathedral city of St.James the apostle.

The walk may be undertaken and completed in a single visit, or it can be covered by several phases over several years. At the chosen point of origin (which can be anywhere along the way) it is customnary to obtain a credencial . This is the Pilgrim Passport. Itś a simple official document which confirms starting point and date as well as mode of travel (foot, bike, or horse).Along the way the credencial is stamped at the places visited.I have generally sought to get my credencial stamped at those places where I have stayed overnight. Some go for stamps at any place they can get them, often filling more than one credencial. At Santiago, the cathedral authorities check the credencial and then decide if the pilgrim (peregrino) has earned his/her Compostela, an official certificate of completion, the traditional certificate of pilgrimage (which I think is in Latin!).

A further requirement for the Compostela is that the pilgrim has either walked the last 100Km or cycled the last 200Km - no buses allowed (nor taxis, trains, boats or planes). For walkers the last 100Km starts around Sarria. Consequently, at this point it is not unusual for pilgrim numbers to increase substantially. Apparently many people arrive at Sarria to walk just the final portion in order to obtain their Compostela. One writer graciously gives a warning against resentment at ¨my"camino being intruded upon by such brash newcomers.

Indeed, everyone has their own Camino to walk and this is no place to exercise judgment of any kind.

We are now in the final stages. Since O Cebreiro markers have occurred at intervals of 500m, recording the distance yet to go to Santiago. The last marker before I stopped today was 89.5Km.

Iḿ getting closer.

Wednesday, 25 May 2011

O Cebreiro

Samos, Wednesday 25th May 2011

O Cebreiro is a village on a peak. In eight and a half kilometres we climb 700 metres. It is no mean or easy feat.

The guide books leave one with mixed feelings about tackling this particular stretch of the Camino. Rightly they tell that the route up is beautiful, passing at first through chestnut woods and then through open country and a series of hamlets. But then they go on to impart less palatable truths. We are now in Galicia, the fourth and final Autonomous Region that the Camino frances covers. Galicia, we´re told, is brilliantly green. That´s fair enough, and it´s also true. But do they (the guide books) then have to tell us this is so because it is so often wet? The point is hammered home with warnings to take extreme care. It is a long climb, and the weather can be very bad at any time of year. And finally, the encouragement: Make sure you have time to make it to O Cebreiro in daylight!! Thanks for the warnings!

So what can I say about my experience of O Cebreiro? In one simple phrase: it was glorious.

The climb up was certainly arduous, but so worth while. The weather was perfect - clear blue sky and strong sun ( in fact it wasn´t long before most walkers were showing quite a sweat). The landscape is beautiful. Mountains surround and surmount a number of green and often wooded valleys. Mountain streams gurgle and gush with quite some momentum. And the villages are delightful. We took breakfast at La Faba, a typical mountain village, just after 8am. The fresh coffee set us up for the ongoing climb, through Laguna de Castilla and finally into O Cebreino. It ws about 9:30 am and the place was bustling. In recent years it has become something of a tourist destination as well as a pilgrim point of passage. In the village was an excellent example of a pallazo, the typical Galician thatched building of Celtic origin. The twelfth century church of Santa Maria was open, and beckoned a visit. It´s a beautiful, simple building with a profoundly reverent atmosphere.

After O Cebreino, the walk was less arduous through the next few villages until a really strenuous climb up to Alto do Poio where we opted to finish walking for the day.

As I write this, the sun has disappeared and loud thunderclaps are reminding me of the guide book encouragement - ¨the weather can be very bad here at any time of year.¨

We´ll just have to wait and see.

Saturday, 21 May 2011

This is Tops

El Acebo, Saturday 21st May 2011

Today we reached the highest point on the Camino. We are in the mountains. The scenery is reminiscent of Wales or, maybe more so, of Scotland. The sky is blue and clear. The air is crisp and clean. The camino is a mountain trail edged with and surrounded by heaths, heathers, gorse and small spruce trees. The colours are wonderful - white, yellow, pink, mauve, lilac, purple and all variations thereof. The birds´songs are uplifting. The villages are close by and inviting (I´m drinking rather a lot of very good coffee!)

The highest geographic point on the Camino is the Cruz de Ferro (1500m). This comprises a simple and small iron cross atop a tall timber post. But the ground at the base of the post is gradually being built up by a growing pile of rocks and stones. It has become a modern tradition for pilgrims to bring a stone from their home environment and lay it at the Cruz de Ferro. For some, the Cruz de Ferro provides the spiritual high point of their camino. I saw this today as I watched the responses of pilgrims at the cross.

After the cross we started to descend. Frequent loose stones on the track did not make the way the most pleasant. After what seemed an extended time we arrived at the delightful mountain village of El Acebo. We have found suitable accommodation here and are pleasantly winding down in the afternoon sun.

Tuesday, 17 May 2011


Leon, Tuesday 17th May 2011

Today is a rest day in Leon. I´m presently travelling with Herbert from Winnipeg, Canada. We´ve both had foot problems which, at present, allow us to walk at basically the same spèed. We arrived in Leon yesterday afternoon and booked into a hostal (upmarket from an albergue) for two nights of comparative luxury. The blisters are slowly healing. The hot bath is wonderful!

Leon is  a beautiful old city. The cathedral is absolutely magnificent. Architectural features are so delicate and enduring. As one enters, the effect of much stained glass is overwhelming. I was ready to cry at the sheer beauty of the place and the emotional and spiritual responses it stirred in me.

Our wandering has essentially occurred in the old city, where most of the history and present activity is located. The experience is amazing. Both yesterday and today we have only needed to walk a metre or two before meeting someone we know. And it doesn´t stop. Each time we are greeted like long lost friends. This is Camino in the city. It´s powerful, extremely uplifiting, and joyful.

This is a good time to rest (many are doing it). In three to four days time we hit the mountains. We will enter our fourth, and final, province of the Camino - Galicia. We are told we can expect cold, windy and wet weather. What a delightful combination of geography (mountains) and climate (inclement weather)!!!!!!!!!!
A redeeming feature for me may lie in the Celtic heritage of Galicia. I fully expect it to remind me of my native Wales. I´ve read that it´s a poor region from which many have migrated (to UK, USA and the like). The locals have visited their families overseas with the consequence that we might, just might, hear a little more English spoken - a definite bonus and plus.

But that lies ahead. For now, several more hours of the delightful city of Leon.

God Bless

Sunday, 15 May 2011

La Meseta

Berciano de La Camino, Sunday 15th May 2011
(I had wanted to post this yesterday from Sahagun, but the one and only Internet station was closed until Monday)

The Meseta, the vast open plain that stretches across the north of Spain is a land of challenge. In summer, high temperatures see the traveller endure scorching heat in unforgiving open country with absolutely no shade. In winter, the reverse occurs, freezing tempèratures and a bleak and uncompromising landscape.

Some pilgrims choose to take a bus from Burgos to Leon therby avoiding the challenge of walking across this vast plain.For challenge it certainly is! Ahead lie many long stretches with no break, no supplies, no shade or shelter. Speculators say those who brave the meseta will likely experience  a major, and maybe life-changing encounter - with themsleves!! All distractions are removed. There is just the individual, nature and the Almighty.

So what has been my meseta experience? I´m now several days into the meseta with perhaps a couple more days to go. The country has been stunning. The scenery is best described as gently rolling downs. Mostly of lush green plantings, cereal crops that will turn golden in time. Part of the journey lay alongside a 17th cen tury canal, part followed the course of a river. The weather has been gloriously fine - bright blue skies, clean, clear air and a sun hot enough to cause a mild sweat when walking. We are relatively high up. It´s like walking on the top of the world. And the walking has been exhilarating. I say this despite presently battling foot blisters that are doing their utmost to bring me to a standstill.

But what´s going on inside? I´ve been experiencing self encouters for years, some very dramatic and others not so deep or disturbing. I don´t know that there is a great deal to expect in that area.

What I do notice greatly as the journey unfolds, and especially during times when I´m walking, is the realisation of my expectation from the Camino. Before leaving Australia I said, clearly and often, that I expected to walk the Camino with Jesus. This is precisely what is happening. As I travel further, the expectation is more fully met (isn´t this just like our life walk with Him?). I´ve experienced a number of challenges in the last few weeks. None has been too dramatic but each one has undoubtedly been a nuisance,  from the obvious and to be expected sore limbs and aching joints, foot blisters aplenty, the nuisance of a full-blown cold, to the unexpected return of an old enemy - rheumatism. I´ve not suffered from this ailment for almost 40 years ( thanks to a most agreeable Australian climate) yet it´s recently returned with a vengeance. But in all these ¨difficulties¨ I have found the presence of Jesus surely with me - supporting, strengthening and untimately healing. It has been a humbling and greatly enriching experience. Can I say I met Jesus in my suffering? Maybe! There´s a tee shirt available locally which, at this stage of the walk, is the talk of many pilgrims. It shows feet, sore and bandaged, with the slogan NO PAIN, NO GLORY! I might buy one, but not until Santiago when I know I´ve completed this particular Camino.

I believe I´m now about half way there. It´s simply amazing how the time has flown and the adventures have unfolded.

I´ll leave it there for now. I have some more walking to do - with Jesus!


Tuesday, 10 May 2011

Camino Culture

Burgos, Tuesday 10th May 2011

The Camino day starts at about 6 a.m. The early birds have already left, but their departure will be quiet and considerate of those still asleep. In the albergue (really inexpensive overnight accommodation for pilgrims) you may have slept in a room with seven others, or maybe seventy-seven others, most usually in double bunks.

At about six o´clock the stirrings become obvious. Very slowly the sky lightens but it will be an hour or two before the sun rises. The focus at this time is to get up - and get going! Some will make breakfast for themselves at the albergue from provisions they bought the night before. Very rarely a bar might be open in the village offering breakfast before the day´s journey begins. My preference is to hit the road, walk for about an hour (3 or 4 Km.) then stop at a cafe/bar for a light breakfast. Imagine my horror on several of the early days to find nothing open until I´d walked 9 or 10 Km. (quite masochistic!) Wisdom now ensures careful scrutiny of the map on the night before, with provision being made if there is no obvious early eating place.

The Camino is very much an individual, and personal experience. Even if you walk with company, you really walk alone, in the fullness of what´s going on for you. It is an unwritten practice that you do not hold back another, nor do you allow another to slow you down. Each person´s pace is respected, and observed. For me, walking in Spain is akin to driving in Australia - almost everyone passes me!! In passing, a greeting is always exchanged. This might be ¨Hola¨(hello), ¨Buenos Dias¨(Good morning), or ¨Buen Camino¨(good walking). If you meet up with someone you´ve met previously the conversation might be more extensive, but this must not impede progress, either theirs or yours.

Some pilgrims determine the extent of their day´s walk before setting out. My preference is to walk until midday, then progress from village to village as I feel like. That is, wherever I am at or near midday, I´ll take a rest and decide if I want to walk to the next village. When I get there, the process repeats. The end of the day´s walk is determined by whether there is accommodation available. Most villages have an albergue. but I have found some exceptions.

Yesterday I determined, at lunch time, to head for a certain village. The guide book said there was a small but new albergue there. I was hopeful. However, when I got there - and the village itself was tiny - I found no evidence of an albergue (mostly these are well-signed). By this time we were into the siesta hours. Even so, I managed to find two people in this otherwise asleep place. Neither person was very helpful. From what I understood they were telling me to be on my way, there was no albergue here. And so, after resting a while from the strong afternoon sun, I took to the road again. I walkd thirty Km. yesterday - many more than I had intended. But I finished the day extremely happy, if a little sore.

Normally on reaching one´s walk destination for the day, the activity is set - wash the clothes that need washing, and seek out what clothes line space is available (clothes pegs are always at a premium). Get yourself well-showered and relaxed, then there´s social time available before the need to decide on the evening´s meal. Some people do travel in groups. I´ve noticed this especially with Spanish, Italian and some Dutch. The group tends to socialise together. As an individual - and English speaking at that - I find the social interaction is more likely to come from other individuals. The other evening at dinner my table company comprised a lady from USA, a man from Finland, and a young German guy. All spoke English, and we had a fascinating time. We decided that the world would benefit if its leaders undertook a Camino.

Today I´m taking a rest day in Burgos ( most welcome after yesterday´s marathon walk). The weather is pleasant and this city with its medieval history and so many buildings extant is delightful.

The guide book tells me I´m 500 Km from Santiago. My goodness, so much has happened since Roncesvalles, and I´m sure much more will occur before I finish this walk.

¡Buen Camino!

Thursday, 5 May 2011

La Rioja

Logroño, Thursday 5th May

Today completes my first week of walking. This morning I walked out of the province of Navarra and into that of La Rioja. I´m celebrating with a longer time out than usual and a night´s stay in a pension (slightly upmarket from an albergue) in Logroños, the capital of the province.

I arrived here fairly early as the walk from Viana (last night´s stop) was only 9.5 Km. The temptation was there to continue further but I made a decision after experiencing the pleasant environment of this city to be ´kind to myself´. The infection that  I hoped I´d lost before leaving Australia has resurrected itself into a full blown cold which is,to say the least, a nuisance. I hope not to let it better me but I plan to take it easy for a day or two and see if I can be rid of it once and for all. Interestingly, I´m not so aware of the inconvenience when I walk, which is a good thing.

I´ve now walked about 140 Km, but the awareness is not so much of the distance covered as of the sensations experienced. Today I was later starting out (8am) and consequently there was a distinct lack of pilgrims on the route. In fact I only met one other between Viana and the outskirts of Logroño. Most walkers seem to go for an early start (6-7 am).

Whilst you can meet and enjoy the company and fellowship of others, the significance of the journey seems to occur in the inner being. For me, the recurrence of this cold infection has been a major challenge. I´ve been tempted to cry out, ¨God, why this? And why now?¨ But I hear myself answer it to the effect that I need to press beyond a slight physical inconvenience. How well will we grow in spirit and character if we seek to be pampered by ideal conditions? I truly sense that I´m not alone and I appreciate this. I find myself regularly breaking into a love song to Jesus, ¨My Jesus I love Thee¨.

Today has seen a change in the landscape. In the past few days I´ve been delighted by sweeping panoramas of vast open plains, with acres and acres of barley, lush green at this stage of growth. The barley fields are interspersed with vineyards and occasionally a small grove of olive trees. The elevation (about 500 m above sea level) brings clear blue skies and country fresh air. It´s chilly at first, but soon warms up. Today the scene changed. The constancy of the lush green slopes is gone. As I approached Logroño, the environment took on a more industrial aspect - light factories, warehouses and the like. On entering the city I experienced a most unusual phenomenon. Millions of particles of what looked like cotton wool floated through the air (it looked as if it was starting to snow). A small park I walked through looked as if the grass had been covered in cotton wool. I don´t know if cotton is grown in the vicinity, and I´m not sure that I will find out. When I questioned the woman at the pension she simply indicated that it makes you sneeze.

Ah well, cést la vie (oops, that´s French not Spanish! Lo siento.)

PS I´m typing this in the local municipal building where you show your passport in order to get free internet. The girl who attended me was highly amused by the kangaroo on the front of the passport!!