Photos first and then a looooong discourse (which is worth reading I might add.
Click here to open the portfolio from Arthur.
Click here to open the portfolio from Mark.
The following is a distillation of a long list of topics which might be of interest to you. The topics covered include, why people walk the Camino, some the people who most influenced my Camino, a brief description of the route and our daily routine. I end with a few comments on the return to the "real" world. There is a lot to read and a lot more to say but we all have lives to live hence I have reduced it to a minimum, ie as in minimum for a long winded person such as I.
Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to read the blog and make comments. It really did help to know that your were looking out for us.
Thanks also for your generous contributions to the Mercy Ships charity, £1300, and rising. Hopefully Mercy Ships will spend it on dental equipment and hence allow my pal Norton (his mother was a Hell’s Angel) to continue his charity dentisting in West Africa at the New Year.
Why Walk the Camino
When I came home I started reading a book I had planned to take with me but left it (along with another 750gm of books) due to weight restrictions. The book is entitled “Soulsong” by Thomas Forsthoefel and examines the lives of saints in different religions. The aim of the book is to expose the “song in the soul” which made them what they were and to provide parallels for our own lives.
The author proposes that the saints had asked basic human questions, eg “what it means to be human” and during the course of their lives had “walked into the answers”. This was a very apposite time to be reading this book. It has helped me to realise that, in the main, the people on the road to Santiago are asking some of the same questions and all hoping to literally “walk into the answers”.
I found that we were all, more or less, looking for answers to the same questions. Some answers come very quickly when listening to other people talk about their reasons for taking on this task, others appear out of nowhere and answer questions that were not even being asked and some are still out there waiting to be found. For some there is of course the danger that the answers may be too much to bear.
I am sure a lot of the “awakenings” are products of the stress on our bodies and mental resources, eg finding the inner capacity to cover the last 5km of the 40km day. However I am equally convinced that we needed to be open to the questions about our existence and how we impact on your fellow human being to allow the physical endeavour to play its part.
I am conscious that this may all sound a bit “new age” but it is far from it. The great majority of people we met where pretty straight forward individuals and we would all easily recognise them as the people who live beside us and with whom we work. What they are doing, by walking over 770km in 4-5 weeks, is giving themselves the chance to review their lives and find ways of making it better, for themselves, for those they love and for those with whom they come in contact.
Would I do it again? Possibly but I would have to change the way I did it. I have formulated a wee three week scenario which involves covering the 770km but only walking the first 100km and the last 200km. The Meseta, between Burgos and Leon, I could do without. It is an experience worth having but once only.
Would I recommend that you do it? No! It is too tough a gig to actually encourage people to do it. Happy to talk about it, advise about it, make recommendations about how it can be done but it is not something to be taken lightly. Mark and I had lots of planning, or we thought we had, but I have in front of me a 2 metre long map of the route and for the first time since we started planning this adventure, I have a realistic idea of just how long 770km is. It is a long way.
Was it worth it? Yes, and very much so. I had a great experience, met lots of wonderful people (both fellow pilgrims and those who provide the services that support our passing), saw some outstanding country and visited churches, cathedrals and castles that told me I was walking through history.
As to new approaches to my daily life, only time and those around me will be able to tell if it has been worth it. I think it has been but then I have to, don’t I.
I could be here all day listing all the kind people who helped make the road to Santiago so worthwhile but I will restrict myself to mentioning only four.
First and foremost is Mark without whom I would probably never have gone in the first place and who helped make the trip memorable for all sorts of happy reasons. It was a gas, dude.
Next is Colin Brow at the University of Paisley. Colin's physiotherapy skills made sure that I was in a fit state to at least tackle the walk. Without Colin getting my knee, foot and latterly my acute back problem sorted, I would not have been able to start the walk. Sorry to say it Colin but I am bringing back more work for you.
Next is Daniel Bullet from Tarbes. I think I spent less than 48 hours in Daniel’s company but by observing his serene approach to the Camino he passed on lessons that sustained me for the rest of the trip.
Last but not least is Greg Byrne. Greg, Mark and I spent the best part of two weeks walking together and it is fair to say that we did not stop talking and laughing for the whole two weeks. Possibly not a lot of inner reflection going on during that period but Greg’s company made life so much better especially when I was grumping about my useless leg (and boy, can I grump).
To all others, especially our two Italian counts, I wish to express my heartfelt thanks for your company, your support and your kindnesses along the way.
One last point which only struck me in the last days of the trip.
You may remember the wee “queuing incident” that took place when we went for our "free breakfast" at the Parador and the reaction to Senor 11. In reflecting on this incident later, I realised that the “us” of whom I felt such a part were by and large composed of the same type of people. We were all educated, articulate and although of different religions and none we were already part of an existing tribe, ie the middle class.
We all had (or once had) similar professions, eg teachers, technical professionals, lecturers, lawyers, business executives. There were a fair number of newly graduated students but again the classification was easily marked middle class.
We were not rich (with the possible exception of Oscar) but we were by no means on our uppers or worried about getting a meal at the end of the day. Many people were on tighter budgets, eg they bought and cooked their evening meal, but I never came across anyone, other than the two Camino tramps, who was actually worried about paying £4.50 for a place to sleep or pay £5 for a three course peregrino menu meal.
Aside: Ask Mark about how much he loved the peregrine menu meal.
I once flippantly said to Greg, as we were sipping beer at 2.30 in the afternoon at Molenaseca, “Tough old life eh! Wonder what the poor people are doing?” Well after the Parador incident I did wonder what the poor people were doing and how they resolved their life issues.
For example, how do the “poor people” deal with “what it means to be human”? They certainly aren’t “walking into the answers” on the Camino because they can’t afford to. Where does the money come from to buy all the support gear, get to the start of the Camino (air/train/bus) plus sustain life and limb for 4 or 5 weeks. I don’t see the Social coming up with that type of money to help a housing benefit claimant “find themselves”.
Has the Camino now become a middle class preserve? A question for the Confraternity of St. James to ponder perhaps.
The route begins with the trek over the mountain from France into Spain. It is pretty demanding and would possibly be better done in two stages. Either way you are rewarded by views of the Pyrennes that are stunning. Most of the upward section is on or alongside a country road. Seems bad but it is OK. The downward section to Roncevalles is through wooded lanes which are very typical of those we see at home. This woodland terrain goes all the way to the outskirts of Pamplona (with notable exceptions for about 10km just after Zubiri).
Pamplona is the first big town and would be worth at least a day spent being the tourist. I had been there a few times whilst working on a European project with Ewan MacArthur, Chris Irgens and Lesley Walls so I did not dally for long, just enough time to send home some belongings to reduce the pack weight. Boy did that feel good.
The section between Pamplona and Burgos is mostly farmland with valley after valley after valley of wheat fields. It is simply huge. I had read that Spain had been the breadbasket for Rome and after walking through this area I can well believe that to be the case. We are not about to run out of Weetabix in the near future.
Between Pamplona and Burgos there is one large town, Logrono with a superb cathedral (and three other churches of similar note), and a number of small towns such as Puente la Reina, Estelle and Santa Domingo de Calzada which are worth seeing. The small towns are similar in structure with narrow streets, lovely houses, big churches. You get the impression that time has stood still for a long time but the shops, though small, are modern enough to give a lie to that impression. However the economy of these towns depends a lot on the pennies spent by the pereginos.
At least the town of Santa Domingo made a few pennies out of Mark and I that night as we teamed up again. Pizzas and beer and then some more. Very Spanish? Possibly not but we were celebrating and even by that time (one week in) Mark had had about enough of the peregrino menus to last him a lifetime.
Burgos is a big place, full of ancient and medieval structures, abounding in monuments and churches. The cathedral is immense, amazing and houses the last resting place of "El Cid", brigand, mercenary and all round bad guy. If you had the money, you had "El Cid". Spent one hour there and could easily have spent a week.
The route between Burgos and Leon is an acquired taste. I did not acquire a taste for it nor will I ever. Flat, very hot, arid and empty. This area lies in the northern part of the Meseta, a huge plateau which forms the central plain of Spain.
Aside: Other than the major cities, the Camino is by and large routed through fairly remote countryside for most of its length and many of the albergues are located in small villages. This is particularly true of this part of the Meseta. There are bus services between many of the villages but usually only once a week and then only once on the appointed day.
It was on this stretch that I met bed bugs and mosquitoes. The bed bugs were a nuisance and a one-off, the mosquitoes were, for me, a biblical plague. From me alone they must have established a blood bank which should last a decade. Three weeks later and I still have the bite marks which show no signs of fading.
I met people who loved the barren landscape, said it gave them a sense of just how vast this land was. That is exactly what bothered me as in “God will this never end?” It did end at Leon and a welcome sight its towering cathedral spires were to Mark, Greg and I.
Leon is my favourite city on the Camino. Everything the tourist wants, massive cathedral with amazing stained glass windows that bath you in light; narrow streets joining a network of small squares full of people and restaurants, wide boulevards, all with history written into each stone. Call me romantic but I loved it.
From Leon onwards the landscape progressively took on features which we would recognise at home, woodlands and mountains. I felt very comfortable with this terrain and enjoyed walking in it, and on some days, walking up it because there are some big hills in this stretch, eg the stretch up to O Cebreiro.
I got to the top of O Cebreiro with a wee bit of puffing and panting. I got to the bottom the following day (at Tricastela) with a big bit of swollen leg. I was not a happy person, even seeing a fellow peregrino retiree in “stooky” didn’t help. Having done the best part of 400mls, to be injured within the last 80 was somewhat of a downer. However according to Mark and Greg, kind souls that they are, I had seen and walked the best part of the last section. So chin up with leg dragging I made for Santiago de Compostela on the bus.
I gave some of my impressions about Santiago in the main blog so will not over-elaborate on them here. Enough to say that it is lovely in the early morning and late evening. Sitting in the cathedral just after it opens at 7.00am, maybe with no more than half a dozen other people there, is a time to savour for ever. You get the chance to think or not to as you wish, being there is enough. However during the day the area around the cathedral is a circus and I hated it.
I found the external structure a bit of a confection and equally so the main alter. However the “Portico de la Gloria” is a masterpiece of stone sculpture as are some of carvings within the side chapels.
I couldn’t quite decide how I felt about the Cathedral. It is so obviously constructed for and dedicated to a specific person that I wondered at the “cult” overtones. That kind of tweaked at my more traditional understanding (I am 60 after all) of the place of saints in the ecclesiastical hierarchies. For example St. Andrew, the patron saint of Scotland, is represented in St. Andrew’s Cathedral in Glasgow but he is not even close to being the focus of the cathedral. In Santiago, there is no doubt about who is the focus. I have never been to St. Peter’s in Rome so maybe it is the same there but I doubt it.
There is one thing for sure though. The shrine in Santiago draws many pilgrims and visitors each year and with their faith (or lack thereof) they bring their pennies.
The Daily Routine
Get up at 6am, get dressed, pack the sleeping bag, brush the teeth, fill up with water (as much as you can carry and never less than 2lts), pack the rucksack, check for wallet, phone, glasses and passport and get out the door. Simple eh! Takes 30mins max with little or no chatting (it is 6am) and no one getting upset. Team work at its best and that is in rooms varying from 125 persons to 6, but more often than not 12. Getting organised in the morning is now referred to as doing “The Peregrino Waltz”.
After that we generally put in an hour or so on the road and stop for breakfast, coffee and sandwich or cake. I hated not getting breakfast straight away so tried to arrange as early a stop as possible and if that was before we started walking so much the better. Fifteen minutes was all it would take and I was all the better for it.
After that it was walk, rest a wee bit (have some trail mix or nuts or fruit) and walk until the day was done, usually around 1.30pm at which point the heat was so intense as to be unbearable. Even after 3 weeks, trying to walk in 35C was not a pleasant experience.
We drank water all the time, filling up at fountains along the way or buying it from machines. In the first week I was always thirsty, drinking water and orange juice like it was going out of fashion. I was drinking so much fluid I really thought something was wrong with me.
After booking in at an alberque (we would recognise them as youth hostels), we would wash ourselves, our clothes, eat a bit of food (bread and a tin of tuna/sardines etc [must remember to finish that last tin of octopus]) and sleep for a couple of hours. Late afternoon was spent talking with our fellow peregrinos about their day, the next day and anything else that appeared out of the mish-mash of conversation.
Evening involved the (easy) search for a peregrino menu, eating, chatting and the occasional half pint shandy.
Bed at 10pm and if you are lucky you get to sleep before the Olympic class snorers kick in. I thought I was good but there are some real champions out there.
Three major points:
• If you can avoid it don’t do this during the summer, the heat is just too much.
• Reduce the weight to an absolute minimum.
• Learn the language properly. This is really important and will make a major difference to your confidence in dealing with every day communications and help reduce the stress that inevitably accompanies such communications. It will also help you to get to grips with the culture of the areas through which you pass.
Aside: In Sarria, I went into a shop to ask for directions to the nearest internet café. I prepared the sentence, made sure the grammar was correct and repeated it to myself three times before going in. The two ladies to whom I spoke, looked at me, looked at each other and then burst out laughing. Spanish with a Glasgow accent must be a hoot in Sarria. They did however pay me the compliment of giving me directions in Spanish (which I understood too). So not only must you learn the language, you must also learn to speak it properly.
Back to the Real World
First thing I noticed was on the plane. A guy, in the queue waiting for the toilet, was checking out his shoes, jeans and shirt to make sure of what I don’t know but he was doing an overall check, a wee tug to straighten that seam, shirt collar ok, etc. I thought “fashion conscious eh..” and then realised that there is no such thing on the Camino. The very thought of being colour coordinated or seamed straightened is just too ridiculous for words. Which is just as well since most of the time I looked like something the cat had dragged in and that included sitting on the plane with Mr. Straightseams. I wasn’t bothered by it I just thought that it was kind of funny that I had forgotten that such things actually mattered in the real world.
Aside: As we were going out to eat one night, Mark appeared in a particularly retina searing ensemble which was described by Greg as the height of “Camino Chic”.
Second there is the noise and adverts everywhere and somehow the noise and adverts seemed to go together. Santiago was not too bad but Stanstead was too powerful. Possibly because of our lack of Spanish, the adverts we saw during our sojourn were nothing other than pictures. We saw TV as we passed through a bar but we tuned out because it had no meaning. In essence we had no TV/radio/adverts for 30 days or so. In retrospect it was a blessing. Since coming home I have switched on the TV for the news and having heard the terrible headlines, promptly switched off.
Aside: We did once hear noises emitting from a 6.00pm Spanish soap opera that I am sure my maiden aunt would have disapproved of strongly. However the scene had changed by the time we got to the TV. Purely in pursuit of cultural research you understand.
Since returning home I have been taking it very easy and avoiding the real world as much as possible. Had lunch at the 1901 with Margaret, been out with my old pal Brian for a small snifter, my cousins Martin and Tom for a meal and 2 days in bed with readjustment tummy problems which have helped me to shed another 4lbs in weight. That is me down a total of 12lbs. Physiotherapy appointment made for the bad leg and that will be me sorted.
Spending the rest of week at home readjusting and hopefully cutting the back lawn in which, by now, lurk forms of wildlife previously confined to the Masai Mara Game Reserve.
To paraphrase James Taylor: Yes, it is nice to be home again (and I intend to be here for a long time).