Camino de Santiago
This is a pilgrim route across northern Spain to Santiago de Compostela. For us it was 500 miles on foot and a unique experience. For many it is the journey of a lifetime.
Claire and I walked the Camino in the Autumn of 2007.
After we came home I wrote up a sort of diary of the journey and then recorded it in the same way I had recorded American Cricket.
That was our trip round the USA in a beaten up Ford Mustang from US Rent-A-Wreck. I recorded that because I thought my kids wouldn’t bother to read it. However, they might listen to it as a story since I always read to them when they were young.
Because other people listened as well and said they liked it, I did the same this time. So you have a choice.
Camino De Santiago audio version
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 1
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 2
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 3
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 4
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 5
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 6
Camino De Santiago: Chapter 7
Well, it’s a long trail across Northern Spain from the French side of the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela and you walk it, she said, and there are places to stay called albergues, and it’s called El Camino, which means “the way”.
What do you mean why, she said? It’s a pilgrim trail. It is a Christian pilgrimage that people have been making for over a thousand years along the same path. And when they get to Santiago all their sins are forgiven, and if they go on the few extra miles to Finisterre, which until exactly 1492 used to be the edge of the world, they can cast them off altogether. Oh, for goodness sake. Because in 1492 Columbus discovered America which meant it wasn’t the edge of the world after all.
Of course it’s a long way, she said, it’s all across Spain. It’s meant to be a long way, and it isn’t just a distance, it’s a journey, and journeys are a long way, and arriving isn’t actually as important as going. Well it is, of course, because of the forgiveness, but it is different. That is, the journey itself is important, because it is hard, and shows your devotion. Unless, in the old days, you were rich, in which case you paid someone else to do the walking and you just turned up at Santiago to collect the forgiveness.
No, of course it isn’t fair, and as Claire will tell you, life isn’t fair. It is just one of the perks of being rich and one of the disadvantages of being a peasant. And of course being forgiven when you get to Santiago is one of the benefits of being a Catholic she said – a bit mysteriously I thought.
Yes, she said, I have heard about pilgrims putting stones in their shoes so that they suffer. It is an act of penitence she says. And the flagellation. I suppose it is possible that at this very moment someone is crawling on all fours to Santiago from Beijing whilst flailing themselves raw. They are called zealots, and every faith seems to have them, and before you ask I don’t know why. However, I can tell you that most pilgrims have found just walking it quite hard enough.
Well yes, Santiago is a place, but Saint Iago is St. James in Spanish. No he wasn’t Spanish and he wasn’t English either. Anyway, he brought Christianity to Spain and then went back to the Holy Land and was martyred – well, alright, killed. It’s just that martyred implies being killed for a decent reason, like believing in something that the establishment disapproves of, rather than just being gratuitously killed, or run over for example. Anyway, after he was martyred, or killed, they brought his body back, well they did, she said, and buried it, and then ages later, hundreds of years later, a shepherd found his grave in a field on a very starry night and so the place was called Santiago de Compostela because compo nearly means field and stela almost means stars.
What do you mean, is that true? I am just telling you what I know, she said, and during the Middle Ages it became the most important of the three great pilgrim destinations for Christians, the others being Rome and Jerusalem.
No, she said, somewhat exasperated. St. James didn’t actually walk it himself – he came by boat – yes, both times. The Camino is the route that was gradually developed as a way to get to Santiago. Well, to see the remains of St James. Well, because he was the first Christian martyr, and because the pope said that if you did all your sins would be forgiven, as I have already told you, and to devout Catholics that was a good thing and well worth the effort. If you haven’t ever been a Catholic you probably won’t understand. So Catholics came from all over Christendom. In fact, although the Camino Frances is the best known and most used, there are routes from all over Europe. Look, if you are so interested, instead of going on with these silly questions, why don’t you just go yourself. You will find that those who care for the Camino and help those who wish to make the pilgrimage, are remarkably tolerant of the ungodly such as you. And, as Claire will tell you, there is nothing complicated about walking – you just put one foot in front of the other.
Oh, I don’t know, about 500 miles I think, she said, and wandered off.
A small train is gently clacketing and screeching its way up a steeply wooded valley to St. Jean Pied de Port, and a pair of Japanese women, probably in their late forties, looking and moving like Beatrix Potter’s dressed up mice keep dashing to the windows, waving their paws and giggling with excitement. They are waving at people with backpacks trudging up the valley path, which is occasionally visible from the train.
We arrive at dusk, get off at the station which is on the edge of town, and stand on the platform as it gradually dawns on us that we have absolutely no idea what to do next. I don’t know what we expected, but there is no large sign saying Welcome Pilgrims. How nice of you to come. This way to the Camino. In fact there is no sign saying town centre or anything at all. By now, the locals have evaporated, and the Japanese, with huge back packs, are giggling off into the distance, so we follow them.
More by luck than good judgement, since by now the Japanese have gone round a corner and disappeared, we climb up some steps through an ancient arch and find ourselves in a long stone street that was obviously the original single route before the rest of the town grew round it. We organise a place to stay and wander up the street to find that the office of the Friends of the Camino is open, that kind old men are pleased to see us, and that this is where we register as pilgrims, and get our pilgrim’s passport or credencia. This will be our essential ID for the rest of our journey. Without it we will not be allowed into the albergues, the hostels which are the backbone of Camino accommodation. We fill in forms that say who we are, how old we are, the fact that we are going on foot, and that we don’t have any religious denomination and therefore have to tick the box on reason for going as ‘other’. I would have liked to explain that ‘other’ didn’t have to be quite as vacuous as it sounded, but I don’t think they really wanted to know and in any case ‘other’ was probably as close as I was going to get at this stage. The kind old men are also full of good advice about the next day, which will be our first. I resist the temptation to launch into my treatise on the futility of gratuitous exercise but do explain that we have decided to take the easier route along the road rather than begin our trip by launching ourselves straight over the Pyrenees.
No, that wouldn’t be a good idea at all he says. The road is dangerous, there is no proper path, and there are rockfalls. No, over the top is much the best, and in any case this is the way everyone goes, he says. As a compromise he offers to phone up the Refugio at Orisson so we can do it in two stages. They haven’t any beds left but offer us a tent in the garden. We each get a pilgrim’s passport which is a folded card with our details on it and lots of blank space for the official stamps of the places we stay. We also get some instructions for the next day, and a rather ominous sheet showing an elevation chart of the entire 800 kilometres of the Camino, which looks like the temperature chart you would have at the end of your bed in hospital showing that you really were pretty ill, and that whatever it was that you had got, it was probably terminal.
Since we have used left-over Dutch Euros to get us this far since leaving England, we pop into the new bit of town to find a hole in the wall machine. I have gone to some effort to organise things with my bank so that they know we will be abroad and have increased my credit limit temporarily, just in case . As a result my card is rejected by all machines, whereas Claire, who has made no arrangement whatsoever, has them falling over themselves to give her whatever she wants at whatever machine she chooses. This remains true for the rest of the Camino, which makes my bank one of the first on the list of snotty letters I am going to have to write when we get back.
The office has given us quite a detailed map of the first section, including special instructions on signs not to miss and an alternative easier route on part of the way down the other side. By the time we set off in the morning with a couple of small bottles of water and a local biscuity cake thing Claire has bought, it is probably around nine on a bright sunny day. We cross the river out of town and begin to climb.
Orisson is only about 7 kilometres up the road, but climbing about 2000 feet. Over the next six hours I puff and pant my way up, having to stop at least every 100 yards. Claire is in better shape than me but by the time we arrive we are barely moving. In the meantime there has been a steady stream of people passing us,. Everyone finds it hard work but only one person finds it harder than us. Pauline is a Quebequoise with a club foot and surgical boots who has been lumping herself along the Camino from Le Puy in France, 750 km the other way and has already been going for nearly two months.
When we do finally get in the Japanese have already twittered their way up with enormous packs and have been there for hours. The hostel straddles the little mountain road with the main bit on one side and the garden with about ten tents in it behind, and a large deck on the other side on top of what turned out to be a few more rooms and the laundry. Relaxing on the deck in the sun is a cheerful bunch of Australian women who are being organised by Gary. Gary has a car in which he carries both them and their stuff and generally organises them. Others coming up have said that Pauline is now seriously struggling and so Gary goes down to pick her up. He reappears with her in about ten minutes from where it probably took us an hour and a half to puff our way up. The huge time difference between walking and car or bus is a comparison we never get over. Even near the end, somewhere which is half an hour on a motorway being two days walking for us is still a comparison we can’t quite deal with.
We have brought one little book with us. This is a guide to walking the camino by John Brierley who suggests an itinerary of daily sections which will get you to Santiago in a month or so. We have already fallen a day behind his schedule and we only set off yesterday.
It turns out that we don’t have to sleep in a tent because they find us a space with some mattresses in the laundry room, which is fine. We have a communal meal at a big table which consists of soup, some meat and for pudding a happy shopper equivalent of a yoghurt, crème caramel, ice cream or fruit salad. With small variations, this turns out to be the general formula for every meal over the next month and a half.
The hostel is the only building within miles and after we have eaten it is dark and about 8 o’clock. Everyone is beginning to yawn, and in any case no-one is about to go out on an evening stroll. Although we are all better than when we arrived, most of us are still going up and down any steps sideways and one at a time. In fact, almost all pilgrims are instantly recognisable anywhere on the Camino, especially before bedtime, by a slight hobble, together with little groans when standing up after sitting down for a bit.
By the following morning we have discovered the first of the great miracles of the Camino. It is the ability of your body, and particularly your feet and legs to mend themselves overnight.
Today involves a continuous climb for about 15 km and up another 2500 ft, before a steep and sometimes difficult descent to Roncesvalles, which is not a town but one large monastery. We set off early and are soon passed by a regular succession of fitter walkers. As the day wears on, we are even left behind by people who started at St. Jean. There is nothing between the hostel at Orisson and Roncesvalles so when you have started you just have to keep going. Each hill we top reveals a new horizon of even bigger ones which you increasingly hope you will somehow magically be able to go round, until you spot little moving specks in the distance and realise that you too are going to have to become a little moving speck. As we pass the skeletons of sheep and horses, which have obviously been caught out in the winter, I hope they would have the decency to collect any of us who didn’t make it since it would be rather discouraging for the others if they didn’t.
By the time we get in to Roncesvalles in the late afternoon we have had enough. We already know that we have a choice of accommodation because the monastery had spotted that pilgrims were becoming more fussy these days and were not quite as pathetically grateful as they used to be for simple rude shelter. They had therefore converted part of the monastery so you could pay for a bit of luxury.
We had decided that the prospect of bunk beds in a dormitory, communal showers and possibly no hot water was not hugely appealing and Claire absolutely needed to soak her feet in a nice hot bath, so she went to organise it. Did they have rooms with a bath, she said, yes they said – definitely with a bath, she said, yes they said, so we went, and when we got there it was a shower. Still, it was ours and the water was probably hot and by then we had already walked up two flights of stairs to get there and there was no way we were going to go down again straight away.
When I got in to the shower I found that I could neither bend down to get at my feet nor lift them one at a time to wash them, so I finished up sitting on the floor in the shower to get at each foot in turn and then having to get on all fours to get out. I know it’s pathetic but there you are.
We went down to a cold beer and a communal meal. Afterwards there was a pilgrims’ mass in the church and nearly all of us went because it seemed to be a good groupy, bondy sort of thing to do. It was, however, the first reminder of how odd it is to go to a communal ceremony of any kind and find it conducted in Latin a language spoken by no one at all.
It turned out that although that day had been a struggle for us, others had had a much worse time. Some had arrived with serious blisters and torn muscles. One American couple with their 20 year old son had not got in until 10.30, having done the whole section that day, and I don’t think they lasted more than a few days after that. We met several people who had also decided to go the easier way and been told that everyone went over the top, so like us they had. It was a baptism of fire. As we got further away we were more and more pleased that we had done it the hard way because there continued to be a certain camaraderie amongst those of us who had survived that first day or two. We were very grateful that we split it at Orisson and I think being so slow preserved our feet until we learned how to look after them properly. We found that it was quite usual for people to start at Roncesvalles, which missed out that section but I am glad we didn’t.
The next day, according to the itinerary in the book, we have to walk 25km. It makes a calculation to adjust the distance if you have to go uphill which makes it even further. We know we have absolutely no chance of doing that distance so Zubiri is about as far as we reckon we can get.
We come into Zubiri off a path and on to the main road with our legs hurting and our feet like hot lead weights. Although there is no traffic I think we should get off the road and on to the pavement. Claire refuses, since climbing up the kerb involves what by that time is an unacceptable level of pain and effort. It sounds totally ridiculous to anyone who hasn’t felt it and induces a warm sense of togetherness amongst those who have. I know what you are thinking – this is ridiculous, he is just exaggerating to make you feel sorry for him, I mean it can’t be that difficult to step on to a pavement for goodness sake.
Let me try to explain. By the time we had shuffled up on to the road we were no longer walking in the sense of walking as we know it, spring in step, bending of knees and swinging of shoulders. It was more like those toys you used to be able to buy that would sort of walk down an incline by rocking from side to side, allowing each leg, without bending, to move forward in turn. Well it was a bit like that, only slower. Climbing the kerb meant bending one knee and lifting a leg whilst balancing on the other one and then putting all the weight on the other and heaving and twisting at the same time and hoping not to fall over – there was no way we were going to risk those kind of gymnastics; being run over was a less strenuous option, so we didn’t bother – so now do you feel sorry for us? We miss the sign for the municipal albergue and have to walk back. Zubiri becomes one of the very few dispiriting experiences of the entire journey. The albergue is a modern tired looking yellow building looking out on a yard full of metal clothes lines. There are a motley looking collection of men sitting on the steps, more like itinerant workers than pilgrims. No-one smiles, or tells us where the office is or anything until someone eventually points us at a notice which says that someone will turn up at 7 o’clock to collect our money and stamp our credencia. There are two dormitories so we find a couple of bunk beds and stake our claim by unrolling our sleeping bags on them, which is what you do.
We sort out our feet and in due course someone turns up at the little office, takes our money and stamps our credencias. There was no meal or restaurant in town, but the sports centre up the road had a cafeteria, so we hobbled up there. We had something to eat, served by a cheerful fat man in the dirtiest apron I have ever seen, except in films, and hobbled back. I suppose it must have been around 10 that the camp commandant turned up, demanded accusingly where two people were whose stuff was there, and getting no answer, turned the lights off, slammed the door and disappeared.
The general rule at albergues is that you have to be out by 8 in the morning, so we were, just in case a guard turned up and shot us. I still can’t quite work out what it was about Zubiri, and the feeling that a good percentage of the people there somehow didn’t belong. That sense of being treated as some kind of alien did not ever happen again . The next day we were heading for Pamplona which would be the first big town we had come across.
For some reason I can’t quite remember we had had nothing to eat and no coffee all day. It was Sunday and none of the little villages or hamlets had anything. I have no idea whether the sports centre cafeteria in Zubiri would have been open, but it was back the other way and at this stage you didn’t retrace a single step you didn’t have to.
By the afternoon we were both knackered and still a few kilometres outside Pamplona so when we came to a road we hitched a lift which kindly dropped us off a couple of miles from the old part of the city.
We picked up the Camino signs and came in through an arch in the city wall and past the square where the famous bull run starts. By carefully consulting the map I skilfully guided us exactly to the albergue, despite Claire’s insistence that I hadn’t got a clue where I was and was just making it up. If it was the right place it was boarded up and shut. However, we did find Pauline, the Quebequoise, sitting waiting for some friends to find her. Which brings us to another miracle of the Camino. This is that you can arrive in villages, towns, and even big cities that you have either never heard of, or have certainly never visited before, and bump into people you know. There are obvious and not quite so obvious reason for this. An obvious one of course is that we are all making the same journey, and even though we travel at different speeds, we catch up faster people who take a day off, or get caught up by people like Pauline who benefits from the occasional intervention of the divine bus. So we weave a constant threaded plait which moves with us but gently unravels and evaporates behind us to make room for those who are yet to come. A not quite such obvious reason is that, with very few exceptions, for hundreds of miles , the Camino is only a footpath wide, and absolutely specific so that even in a big city like Leon with a population of half a million there is only one route through for pilgrims. What is more, the route is through what the city was 1000 years ago so it is always through the oldest centre of town. This is where the churches and cathedrals are and so this is where the albergues are, and for the better off this is where the traditional inns and taverns and restaurants were – and to a large extent still are. So that is why, in strange villages, towns, and cities, we keep seeing the people we know.
When we had come into the old city there was obviously something going on because the streets were stuffed with people standing about and you couldn’t walk without crunching plastic beer glasses, so it was obviously something religious. It transpired that it was to do with either an old bishop or a new one, so there was a big procession going on with an effigy of an old bishop or a new one being paraded round the streets surrounded either by nuns or people dressed up as nuns whilst everyone else stood about and got drunk.
Anyway, we retraced our steps through the plastic mugs and found the official albergue, constructed on three floors of bunk beds either side of the nave of a huge church, spotless and run by kindly but stern looking nuns and with military precision. No staking claims to a bunk bed by flinging your sleeping bag on it here. Sign in and pay 3 euros each to be shown exactly which bed you are going to sleep in and no swapping.
But, hot showers, free washing machines, and nearly enough loos, which made this one almost unique amongst albergues.
Doors locked and lights out at 10 o’clock.
In fact Pauline had arrived the night before and because of the condition of her feet wanted to stay a second night. The almost universal rule is one night only, because you are supposed to be a pilgrim on a pilgrimage, not a holiday maker. They wouldn’t let Pauline stay another night unless she went to the local hospital outpatients and got a doctor’s note to say that she was not fit to walk, which is what she had to do.
We bumped into Kim and Michelle, the Canadian sisters we had met at Zubiri. Kim had serious problems with her feet from coming downhill to Roncesvalles, and had finished up walking backwards to try to take some pressure off her toes. A bunch of us went off together to find something to eat and for the first time ran into what was to become a continuing problem for the rest of our journey. The Spanish don’t eat in restaurants until 9 or 10 o’clock. It may be even later than 10 but we were never up that late to find out.
At the refugio at Orisson we had been fed at 6.30 and at Roncesvalles at 7. At Zubiri the caff at the sports centre seemed to feed us okay, but in Pamplona all the restaurants were shut. Well, they weren’t really, but they didn’t open for food until at least 8.30. We sat in a bar and assumed the dining area was closed because all the lights were off. In the end they agreed to open up at around 8.30 and fed us, but because everything was so slow we had only enough time for one course before we had to get back so we weren’t locked out by fierce nuns.
We decided that we would have an easy day the next day and just walk the few miles out of Pamplona to Cizor Menor, which would put us back in sync with the itinerary. Kim’s feet were so bad that she decided to do the same and come with us, hoping to recover and catch up with her sister later. Due entirely to my own stupidity I had got a minor blister on one foot. My sock had rucked up under my foot and instead of stopping to sort it out I had just ignored it and by the end of the day had a blister. I was very cross with myself, but by then it was too late. There seems to be a great deal of nonsense talked about blisters, but the absolute rule is that you do drain them despite whatever your mother told you. The only problem is that you don’t want to get an infection and that is why some people say that you should puncture them with a needle and thread and leave the thread in, presumably so that the fluid drains out without letting infection in. I didn’t like that idea so just punctured it, cleaned it and put a plaster on.
Actually, there is a whole world of myth about how to look after your feet for a long walk. Stuff you can rub into your feet for a month before. Soaking them in alcohol or meths to harden them up. Getting a good old fashioned pair of stout walking boots and making sure they are fully worn in before you start. Wearing two pairs of socks. All rubbish. Well, not exactly rubbish but not the easy answer. The easy answer is greasy feet.
By the time we got to Cizor Menor we had been told about greasy feet and had bought a tube of Vaseline which Claire used and a special walkers lubricant for me which came in a neat little box with a wheel on it, worked like a prit stick and smelled nicer than vaseline. The principle is this. Before you set out in the morning you rub grease into your feet and especially between your toes. Then you put your socks on and go. This means that even if your toes are a bit pinched you shouldn’t get blisters between them, because they slip past each other rather than rub, creating heat and friction. In the same way your foot moves inside your sock which moves inside your shoes which it is bound to if they are not too tight. Once again, your foot will move without chaffing . Claire and I both bought very modern lightweight shoes which were instantly comfortable, were utterly unaffected by ‘wearing in’ and are as good as the day we bought them. At huge expense, I once bought a pair of American boots for work. I wore them out before I wore them in and decided never again. Except for my initial blister, which served me right, and was OK in a few days, we have walked 500 miles on every surface you can think of with a ten kilo pack and not a single blister. I am sure that we were fortunate in our choice of shoes but the real secret is greasy feet.
We had arrived at Cizor Menor by late morning and the albergue was not yet open so we left our stuff outside and ambled off to get a coffee. As we got back several others had turned up and a kindly looking woman opened a side gate announcing that the albergue was now open and that we should bring all our problems to her and she would solve them. We tumbled into a large sunny garden with turtles in a pond and a coke machine. We got stamped in, found some beds and reassembled expectantly to have our problems solved. Anyone who had tired feet should go and wash them for ten minutes in a bowl of cold water with salt and vinegar she said, both of which we would find in the kitchen – so we did – and ten minutes later our feet were magically cured – not Kim’s of course because she had got these dreadful blisters on the ends of her toes, but for those of us who just had hot tired feet it was lovely. We had a think about Kim’s feet and decided it would be a great help if we could reduce the pressure on her toes, so we took her $150 special hiking boots and cut the toe caps off. The effect on Kim was instant and wonderful and subsequently made even better by Maribel of the albergue who turned out to be a damaged foot genius. She drew off three syringes full of liquid from Kim’s blisters, and bandaged them properly so that they would recover. We didn’t see Kim again so we don’t know if she got better and caught up with her sister or if I had wrecked her expensive boots for no good reason. By the late afternoon, the Japanese mice had turned up, and we first met a couple of individuals who were still around when we got to Santiago over a month later.
I was having a bit of a loll on my bunk when a woman in her fifties arrived, put her stuff on a bunk, began sorting it out and looked as if she might be about to get changed. I wasn’t sure whether she had seen me so I coughed and waved hello. Oh, she said, I didn’t realise there would be men in here as well. It turned out that she had started that morning at Roncesvalles, so missed the first section, but nevertheless by tea time had covered what had taken us more than a day and a half, so this was her first encounter with the lack of personal privacy that is part of albergues.
Albergues are both wonderful and awful. For between 3 and 8 euros a night you get a relatively clean mattress with a cover on it and almost always a pillow. You need your own sleeping bag but there are usually blankets if you are cold. If you are very unlucky you also get head lice, fleas, bed bugs and veroucas. The vast majority of us don’t get any of these things, but a few people get one of them, and towards the end of our journey there was an outbreak of bed bugs behind us and a bit of a panic that they would be carried quickly down the line by the fast walkers, but it didn’t happen. Quite often there either isn’t hot water or there isn’t enough. Showers are usually separated into mens and womens with varying degrees of privacy. You are more or less certain of privacy in the loo, but you may not be able to lock the door and there are never enough of them. It wasn’t so bad for us at the end of the season, but I can imagine it was pretty awful at the height of summer. Generally dormitories vary from a dozen or so per room, and nearly always as bunk beds, up to dorms practically the size of a small aircraft hangar. This lack of privacy is much more difficult for some of us than others and I have a lot of admiration for Yvonne, who had just arrived, and found it all very difficult for the whole trip. Most of us muddled through. Almost no-one did the whole bit of changing into nightdresses or pyjamas. Most of us took as much off as we decently could and slept in what was left. If there was no hot water, quite a lot of me wouldn’t get washed at all for a day or so and didn’t seem to come to much harm because of it.
The one thing all of us were meticulous about was our feet. If your feet are okay the rest of you will survive. This meant that the end of each day’s walking was signalled by almost obsessive washing, cleaning, drying, inspecting and treating of feet, after which you could relax.
Dormitories tend to be pretty noisy at night with a great deal of snoring, grunting and coughing and you get used to the idea that what you need is rest rather than necessarily being asleep. However, we slept in small rooms of twelve, and big rooms with over fifty and I was never once aware of the smell of sweaty bodies or stinky feet, even though either the Spanish, or albergues, or pilgrims, or all of them seem to have a pathological aversion to ventilation and will invariably close any window you try to leave even just a bit open.
Anyone who is a camper will know how noisy zips can be. This may be just me, but I have often been woken at night on a camp site by a tent door zip because someone needs a pee. I lie stupidly awake working out whether, by the time they come back and close it again, they have had time to get to the loo or whether they have just nipped round the back of their tent – well alright, it is just me then – but if you think zips on camp sites are noisy, they are a lot worse in an albergue dormitory – and I am seriously thinking of offering a prize to the inventor of quiet Velcro, and , given a chance, would ban supermarket bags completely.
The problem is that, especially in some of the smaller places, once you have eaten, which could easily be by 8.30, it is pitch dark and there is nothing to do, and we are knackered so we go to bed. This means that by about 9.30 most of us are already in bed and dozing off. But there always seems to be at least one person who has been sitting in the kitchen area reading for example, who decides that this is a really good time to come in and rearrange all their stuff ready for the next morning. Our packing takes a maximum of two minutes to put everything neatly in our packs, click and tighten the straps and bugger off.
Not these chaps – not if every single thing you have is individually wrapped in one of those really crispy supermarket bags and has to be taken out and inspected and then the bag has to be ironed out by stroking it flat on your bed, and then rolled up again with one shoelace in it before putting it into a small pouch which is sealed by really noisy Velcro, and which has to be opened and closed again each time an individually wrapped sock is put into it. This didn’t happen every night but it was often enough to be really annoying.
Meanwhile, back at Cizur Menor, another new face to turn up was John. John was from South Africa and would have been good looking if something large and heavy hadn’t trodden on his face when he was little. He clomped in with two huge sticks and a hold-all as well as his backpack, and announced to anyone listening that he had walked from Pamplona airport – that he was lucky to be here at all because of the incredibly inefficiency of Madrid airport, that he had to carry everything of any value separately because otherwise they stole it you know, and that he had trained in South Africa for thirteen weeks carrying 11 kilos but his wife had given him some chocolate when he left which meant he was now carrying 12 kilos and he hadn’t trained for that so he was more tired than he ought to be.
I had been listening because I hadn’t managed to escape back into the garden, so I got treated to a whole lot more facts about where he had walked, and how old he was and how his wife hadn’t wanted to come with him, which I already found no great surprise, and how he didn’t really mind because in fact he would have preferred to bring his dog anyway. That’s the great thing about dogs – their ability to deliver utterly uncritical and unconditional devotion no matter how much of a pain in the arse their owner is. Even if it is John.There was only one place to eat so in the evening we had to endure John handing out gratuitous advice and the benefit of his wise rules for living. By the time we came back to bed I found myself hoping that he was as fast as he said he was, and in a couple of days would be far enough ahead to be annoying other people. Not very charitably pilgrimish, but there you go. When we got back to the dormitory after eating, he announced that his towel had gone missing and that someone must have stolen it. I said that I had already devised an absolute law that no pilgrim would ever steal anything which they subsequently had to carry and that it was probably where he’d left it. I admit that this wasn’t much help but by the time he started rummaging in Claire’s backpack accusing her of stealing his jacket I didn’t care – he was clearly a nutter.
It may have occurred to you that whilst we have now been walking for three days, I have yet to mention scenery. Hills yes, but scenery and views no. The reason is very simple. I am so obsessed and consumed by the physical process of walking that I haven’t actually looked at anything much. All I can remember on the way up is endless skylines of hills to climb, and from the top looking down on a wonderfully clear, bright day, a never-ending vista of things I am going to have to walk over. Not hills and dales and valleys and plains and rolling countryside, but a series of ups and downs. In fact, I am already beginning to resent downs because they will inevitably be followed by ups. Once I have climbed a hill I would like to bank it for next time, rather than have to give it away by going down. This may be hard to understand for a normal human being, but I found myself devoting quite a lot of thought to what would be the ideal incline. In other words, sufficient so that you were going up, but not enough to require stopping all the time to puff.
So when Maribel said that there was a free service to carry your back pack to the albergue at Puenta la Reina, our next stop, I jumped at it. Before we started we had heard about people who had their packs transported from point to point so they didn’t have to carry them, and I had said that as a matter of principle it was important that you carried your own stuff because it was all part of being a pilgrim. Well, that was a theoretical principle and very pompous of me and, in the light of reality obviously very silly. I mean, the original pilgrims didn’t have back packs did they? – they didn’t bring anything – they may have died of starvation or exposure but they didn’t carry backpacks – so we said yes please.
The Beatrix Potter Japanese mice both wagged their little paws at me in a disapproving way, but I didn’t care. I had already seen the row of wind turbines we had to cross on the horizon and that we were going to be walking over 20k which is more than we had managed so far.
The climb to the row of windmills was hard even without packs, but the weather was lovely, and we did look at the views.We have enjoyed walking on our own but have had the chummy reward of puffing our way to the top of something and meeting some of the others for a rest. By the time we get to Puenta la Reina we find the albergue is up a hill on the far side of town, and are pretty whacked. In fact it is probably only about 4 o’clock so it isn’t the time available that limits how far we can walk – at this stage we can’t walk for more than about seven hours even if we wanted to.
Even so, after a bit of a sit down and the usual foot doctoring, we go into Puenta la Reina to have a look around and pop into the church, because Claire says I have to. I am not entirely sure why, except that I do worry that Claire thinks if she goes in enough of them she will be suddenly smitten by a divine experience, which for sixty odd years has eluded her. Anyway, we are smitten by coming in on a choir practice because they are obviously a very good choir, the acoustics in the church are fantastic and we sit happily until they finish, after which they pour chattily down the stairs and melt away into the town they are part of.
Since, on average, we probably pass about 10 churches a day and this is a religious pilgrimage route, it seems reasonably important to mention them. And then ten a day is quite apart from monasteries, nunneries seminaries, ruins, crosses, and virgins.
And, the scale and richness in both design and content of churches are often curiously unrelated to the size of the village or town they almost invariably dominate.
It is, however, an extraordinary testament to Christianity, and probably to religions in general, that something as abstract as faith should have been so enduring and able to manifest itself in such a massive physical presence in quite so many churches.
The reason is probably to do with the much more basic concept of the wielding of power, not only over the peasantry but between the powerful themselves. Of course, the modern relationship between church and state seems a relatively simple concept compared with the huge matrix of small, competing fiefdoms in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries for example, whose only common adhesive was God and Rome. It was almost certainly the case that, if you owned the land, one of your relations would be the bishop in order to ensure that the interests of church and state were never far apart.
I was always told that the reason why churches were built so big and tall was to show our devotion to the glorification of God, and that a very grand church would show God how much you loved him and he would be pleased and smile upon you. In my cynical old age I am not so sure. Looking at some of these churches in small villages, I can’t help thinking that there is more than a hint of showing off here, with the added bonus of intimidating the local peasantry into a state of petrified obedience.
I know it is a cheap point, but it is ironic that the Spanish church did not suffer the schism from Rome endured by the church in many countries, and yet in the form of the Spanish inquisition managed to persecute itself even more horrendously than most of the rest of Europe.
Part of my problem with discussing churches at all is this. Any building which still exists with an unbroken life story approaching a thousand years is probably worth a book on its own, and by the time we reach Santiago we will have seen hundreds of them. Even dedicated pilgrims will find they have time only for a cursory glance at most of them, so any comments I make are likely to be even more unfair than being rude about the Germans. However, having not suffered from a schism or Henry VIII, has allowed Spanish churches on the Camino a degree of continuity which has enabled them to retain more bling internally per square foot than I have seen anywhere.
I love church architecture, primarily because of its structural elegance and its stunning use of geometry to deal with heights and spans and domes, that otherwise could be achieved only by ugly mass. I get an almost indecent thrill from the detailing of flutes on columns and arches and soaring buttresses which are so carefully carried from contrived beginnings and ends in a way that never cheats, and if you are going to spend two hundred years building something, you need an organically evolved set of rules you can hand on through generations otherwise it is going to finish up looking a bit of a dog’s breakfast isn’t it? I will even forgive some of the over-elaborate carving of columns because we know that the architects are just showing off their confidence that even pared down to the minimum their structures will work. Actually, of course they don’t always, and quite a lot have fallen down, having been very badly stuck together over the years with tons of ecclesiastical polyfilla. But in general they are pretty impressive – which is more than can be said for the interiors.
I don’t know if it was when the church was first built, or what the interior furnishings of a church would have been when it first opened to the public, but although gold was certainly used to decorate churches since earliest times, its use in such a grossly ostentatious way presumably dates from the point at which it was available in industrial quantities from South America.
Gary, who is shepherding the Aussie group, says that provided you can cope with the idea that the price of this glitz is the slaughter of three million innocent South American Indians, it is pretty impressive.
Of course, the gold is also what they managed to bring back that wasn’t hi-jacked and stolen by Drake and his merry band under the guise of being the British Navy, who were probably the most notorious state sponsored pirates in history. In any case, more than enough did get back, some of which was to embellish the inside of churches to a degree that would make bling dull and 19th century fairgrounds pale by comparison. Much, if not all, of it is still there and looks as cheap and tatty as it always did even if it did impress the peasants and neighbours. Much of the wood carving is gross and ugly and most of it is as structurally badly designed as to be an insult to the building that contains it. So, I cannot be sufficiently rude about the contents of most churches to give me the satisfying feeling that I have managed to adequately insult them.
But of course, it doesn’t really matter, and it isn’t the point, and much of it is symbolic so that whether it is a good piece of design or not – or even if it’s made very well or not is of little interest to those who care about what it represents rather than what it is, and they certainly aren’t going to be interested in what I think about it . They should be really because religion is about ideals and aspiration and striving to be better, and doing your best, and trying to achieve perfection, so they shouldn’t really keep their churches so full of blingy, tatty, fairground glitz, unless of course they think it still works to impress a gullible peasantry.
When we get back to the albergue, South African John and Australian Yvonne are amongst those we recognise who have turned up. They came in after us because they took a diversion to see a church that we didn’t – optional diversions that involve extra walking are not something we are very good at.
Yvonne tells us that she and John have walked together that day, and John suddenly announced that he thinks he may have been drugged and had his money stolen, until he finds it round his neck where it has been all the time. Also she says that she can’t bear the noise he makes clomping along with these two lumpy sticks which he insists have helped him walk all over the world. Yvonne would join an ‘escape John committee’ if we formed one. At a communal meal we manage to sit some way from him by turning up late. Yvonne is not so fortunate. The only interesting thing about the meal was the wine. Wine and/or water are served at no extra cost as part of every meal. Here it was served in English beer mugs with handles – nearly a pint in each and one for each person. I don’t know how Claire managed to drink all hers.
I shouldn’t be rude about the food for lots of reasons. For a start, almost every restaurant on the Camino does a three course peregrino or pilgrim menu for 8/9 euros or at the most 10. Secondly, we didn’t come to Spain for a gastronomic experience – we go to France for that. And probably, more importantly, what we need is not to dine elegantly but to be fed, which by and large is what we get. French pilgrims do find it a serious struggle to do without decent food and having to wait so late to eat it. And we are all surprised by an almost perverse lack of fresh vegetables and fruit.
Throughout 500 miles of Camino every populated settlement abounds with gardens and allotments stuffed full of beans, tomatoes, peppers, dessert grapes, apples, pears, figs, cabbage and particularly in Galicia a triffid-like thing up to six feet tall that looks like a giant sprout stalk with no sprouts on it but with large dark green cabbagy leaves at the top.
Almost none of this produce ever appears in a restaurant. Vegetable salad comes either from jars or tins, and sometimes as Russian salad indistinguishable from that produced by Heinz. Meat, in the form of grilled or fried beef, pork, lamb, chicken, veal, gammon etc. is served with a few chips and never once with any kind of vegetable. If there was fruit for pudding it was usually tinned fruit salad consisting largely of things that don’t grow in Spain even under polythene, and if fresh would be a peach or melon that was so unripe as to be virtually inedible. The only exception in Galicia was triffid soup called caldos, a speciality which consisted of a fairly boring soup with the cabbagy leaves off the top of the triffid – and in my opinion a speciality not worth the effort involved in its creation.
I tend to talk about our next stop and the itinerary as if it is some kind of fixed programme that you have to stick to. Not only is this not the case, but the old hands go a lot of effort to explain that the whole journey is a very personal thing and that each person’s Camino is their own, and that there is no timetable. This is just as well, although we don’t care anyway since we are so slow that the only person who hasn’t passed us so far is Pauline and she is crippled.
The itinerary is the programme set out in the guide to the Camino we have bought that breaks the journey into sections that he thinks normal people should be able to do. So far we can’t, but we can see the logic of it, so every now and then we have a short day to get back on to his schedule.
Today we set off for Estella, which is his next stop, and only get as far as a tiny village on a hill with one road through it called Lorca. The street is hot, tired and sleepy in the afternoon heat and barely wide enough for one van to nudge its way through. A large new house is being built but the scaffolding has to stand on beams cantilevered out over the street on the first floor because otherwise it would block the road entirely. The only sign of any kind of life is two bars directly opposite each other on the little road, with large signs outside reducing the effective width of the road to about 6 feet, and each proclaiming virtues not possessed by the other – free internet – a beer and sandwich for 3 euros – beds for 8 euros, and – evening meal. We arbitrarily choose the one on the right, swing off our packs and have a cold beer. They had a room for two which was great and by early evening we had been joined by a couple of youngish American women, a not quite so young couple of very jolly Norwegian women and finally Michaelle, the little Israeli who said that she was so slow that each day she closed the Camino behind her.
The place was run by a very affable young Spaniard who, I think, owned it, helped by a much older cross between Crocodile Dundee and Steptoe, who I suspect hadn’t got much else to do. He had, however, not only walked the Camino route we were on, but had done it via Rome, Yugoslavia, Slovenia and God knows where else and had the credencia strung up along the wall to prove it – quite apart from special stamps from the Vatican etc. I am not sure why he did it and he wasn’t the only one we met who had walked huge distances in much more difficult circumstances than us. But then I didn’t ask Michaelle what a little Israeli girl was doing on a Roman Catholic pilgrimage. And I don’t know what I would have said if anyone had asked me and insisted on a proper answer, so perhaps it didn’t matter. Before we left England I had considered whether I would keep a journal of this trip as I had done on our drive round America. Before the American trip I had bought a small cassette recorder with the intention of talking straight into it as we went along. Within a couple of days I found that I couldn’t do it and took to writing stuff in longhand at the end of each day. However, by the end of the trip I had probably written more than a kilo of notebooks to bring home. There was no way on this trip I was going to accumulate a kilo of words that I was going to have to carry. I found a recorder the size of a Dunhill lighter that would hold 150 hours of notes on a chip and brought that instead.
However, by the time we got to Lorca I hadn’t spoken to it once. Claire still insists that walking is just a question of putting one foot in front of the other, but so far I had found this simple process so filled my consciousness that the last thing I could consider at the end of a day was some sort of relaxed, intellectual exchange with an aggravatingly clever little machine.
Either I had mentioned that I had this thing or one of the Americans had said that she just so wished that she had one. So I gave it to her and felt strangely relieved of a burden far greater than its actual mass. Anyway, in exchange we got a free supper and didn’t have to cook it either. Jose, the young man had suggested that, if the girls went to the shop and got some food they could cook it in the kitchen and we could all eat it. So far as we knew, there were no shops in the village, but that just goes to show how conditioned I am. Just because a house has all its shutters closed, even on the door, doesn’t mean it isn’t a shop. It hadn’t really occurred to us that in small villages that do not expect any passing trade or are not interested in having it, there is no need to have a window full of things you sell or even a sign saying that you do sell them, since everyone in the village knows exactly where you live and what they can buy in your house. We found this to be equally true in small towns , and even in the back streets of large ones. You would only realise they were there because you caught a glimpse of the inside if you passed at the same time as someone was coming in or out.
The girls reappeared with what Jose decided wasn’t enough, so he gave them some money and sent them off to get some more. In due course all of us, including Jose and the old man, had a very jolly meal of a large salad in olive oil from the trees in the garden next door, and pasta with a tomato sauce from tomatoes also from a garden in the village.
Lorca was a good example of the simple, easy warmth of a shared evening meal after you had also shared the hard climbs and rewarding views and tranquillity during the day. It also served as an example of the issue of language. Although we met almost no English people on the way, English was undoubtedly the lingua franca amongst pilgrims. Very few of the Spanish on the route spoke any English at all, didn’t seem to make much effort to bother to understand us, which is fair enough I suppose, and were slightly resentful if we didn’t even try to speak Spanish. That English is the most used common language amongst pilgrims may be unfortunate for those who don’t speak it, but this is now an inescapable reality, probably thanks to America Google and Microsoft. We and the Americans share English. Michaelle may speak something else at home in Israel, but will certainly speak English as well. No-one can speak Norwegian so they will speak English, and the same goes for the Germans. Funnily enough, the pilgrims least likely to speak English on the Camino (apart from the Spanish) were the French.
On one occasion we had been in the only bar in a tiny village, half way up a mountain with a Basque who insisted he wasn’t Spanish, a French chap who was a Breton who don’t like the French and an Irishman from the Republic who reasonably claimed not to be British. The small irony was that these nuances of nationhood had to be discussed in English with us. Still, the fact that Claire did do Spanish for a bit is a huge advantage and I hide behind her and push her into all situations where Spanish is needed.
The following day we set out to climb yet another row of hills on the way to Estella where we planned to stop but to our surprise get there in the late morning and decided we could go further. Having our stuff transported to Puenta le Reina had made so much difference to the pleasure of walking that we decided to do it again if given the chance. Apparently there is an organised service where you leave your pack at the albergue with 7 euros in an envelope attached to it and it would magically appear at the next place you had designated. All you had to do was ring them up the night before and let them know. We also decided that we would buy a very small light knapsack so that, when we wanted to use the service, we could stuff everything except what we needed for the day into my main pack and send it. Claire would then walk with hers which she found very comfortable practically empty, and I would take the little one. So we bought one on our way through Estella and set off towards Los Arcos.
At Cizor Menor, Maribel the foot angel had told us that, outside Estella, there was a wine fountain and you could help yourself. Well, it turned out there was, and we became two of very few pilgrims who didn’t visit it – for two reasons – or even three – firstly, red wine is not exactly a rare commodity in Spain, secondly because it was just a slightly tacky marketing stunt by the big winemaker in the village, but mainly because it meant a diversion of an extra mile, and when you still had 691km to go you didn’t start making it even further.
In the early afternoon we were overtaken for the second time that day by the Norwegian pair who had visited the wine fountain, guzzled as much as they were allowed before being tutted at by the wine fountain monitor and had stopped for two hours for a large lunch at a posh hotel we had puffed our way past earlier. Well, I suppose that’s the price you pay for over fifty years of dedicated smoking. That, and doing a couple of flat walks on the Somerset bogs before announcing that you are bored of training and in any case don’t want to wear yourself out before you even start. Actually Claire had talked to a number of people who had ‘trained’ and all had said it was a complete waste of time – so that was a comfort.
Needless to say, we are in our usual pathetic state of hot, tired feet that won’t work properly by the time we arrive at a village with an albergue in it, perched irritatingly near the summit of yet another sodding hill. The book has told us that this one is fairly new and run by a very cheerful Dutch group and is very cosy and nice. So as soon as we see what we think is it we clock in. It is certainly is cosy. consisting of one large room with a raised platform all round the walls with a sort of trench down the middle and mattresses randomly strewn on the raised bit . There is more or less nowhere to put your stuff and we are not convinced there is hot water. And then the people running it are very kind and friendly but definitely not Dutch and at this point we realise we are in the wrong place. A quick sortie into the village confirms it. We uncomfortably try to explain that we are going up the road, collect our stuff and leave. The Dutch albergue turns out to have proper rooms with proper bunk beds, where you can guarantee the privacy of being about 3 feet away from your coughing, snoring neighbour and is in nearly every way a pleasure, except that it has one loo for about 30 of us, for which Claire has still not forgiven them. We are fed together in the evening, given a small improving text in our native language and we all fail to turn up to a voluntary contemplative sing song later on, preferring to go either to bed or the village bar.
In the morning after breakfast, which is an unusual treat, and miraculously laving managed to get our turn in the single loo, we set off into the early morning gloom since sunrise is not until after 8 and by the time we get to Santiago is after 8.30.
Actually I don’t know why I called breakfast a treat since I don’t eat it anyway. I have not eaten anything at breakfast and seldom any lunch for more than forty years. In the good old days it was just coffee, cigarettes and a good cough. Now it’s just coffee. However, when we knew we were going to do all this walking I did wonder whether a hearty breakfast was going to be an essential contribution to walking all day. So to begin with I ate what I could if it was available and felt horrible all morning, and since more often than not, it wasn’t available it took about 3 days to give that up. Some people did feel that breakfast was essential and bought the necessary ingredients, since almost every albergue had some sort of kitchen with enough kit in it to prepare your evening meals as well as breakfast if you wanted to. We were never sufficiently organised or interested in either. In any case whatever we bought would have to be carried.
Water is another thing. Those who know me are probably familiar with my views on western civilisation’s apparent obsession with dehydration, insisting as they do on carrying plastic breasts of water wherever they go and sucking the contents out of the little nipply thing on the top with embarrassing frequency. I find the whole process rather revolting. Neither have I ever got remotely close to drinking two litres of it in a day other than in the form of beer.
Nevertheless, since everyone keeps going on about it and even the book says that dehydration can be a problem for pilgrims, I pocket my bigotry and buy some water. Well, two half litre bottles (they are heavy). Two days later we still have one left. Okay, we have coffee and coke and possibly the odd beer in the evening. And the only reason we emptied the first one was that I thought I ought to try. The result was that I felt bloated and my stomach sloshed around like a hot water bottle all morning, so I stopped doing that as well and felt much better. So there we are, no breakfast and drink only if you are thirsty and you will be fine.
That day was an easy walk to Los Arcos, a small town with the usual disproportionately huge church apparently containing one of the great organs of Spain. We clocked into the albergue and Claire did some washing. We met Marino (“if you call me Mario I will break your legs”, he said) who was half Irish and half Italian and his irrepressibly smiling dumpy partner Rose. They had walked from Estella that day and Rose’s feet hurt and she had blisters. In town we bumped into the Aussies who were in a bar consuming indecently large gins and tonic. One of them had tripped over a kerb, twisted her knee and was now unable to walk and unlikely to recover in time to do any more walking. They were going only as far as Burgos anyway, but she was very down about it since such a small incident had torpedoed such a big trip. Since Gary was shepherding them with the aid of a car, she wasn’t stranded, but it made me realise just how vulnerable we were, especially on some of the more rocky paths.
The next day was a lot harder than we thought it was going to be, due to a lot of going up and down hills in order to finish up at about the same altitude as we had started. The book is a bit inclined to average out bumps and may have to go on the list for a stiff letter. It’s not too bad if you know what is coming, but if you think a section is a gentle incline and then it turns out that on average it is, but you have to fall into and climb out of three significantly deep valleys to get there, I don’t think that’s fair. Claire says that it serves me right for looking at the book all the time and since I am going to have to do it anyway, I might just as well save what breath I have and get on with it rather than wasting any effort in moaning about it. The only consolation is that at the end of a hard day Claire’s feet are hotter and more tired than mine, even though I have been slower and moaning more. Nevertheless, we are both quite pleased to get to Viana, which is about 8km outside Logrono, the first big town since Pamplona. On the way in we spot a young German girl and her fairly ancient but cheerful Dad who are sitting in a bar and almost as a reflex action we join them for a drink and a chat. I notice a perfectly respectable woman at the bar light up a cigarette and drop the empty packet on the floor.
Ages ago I remember Claire saying that, in Spain when she was young, one of the things that surprised her was that in bars everyone just dropped any rubbish on the floor, including cigarettes which they didn’t even bother to stub out – they just dropped them – and it’s true, and it is disconcerting to see women with perms and enormous handbags just chucking their rubbish on the floor. I can see a certain logic in it because, either you do chuck it on the floor or mess up the bar with torn sugar sachets and scrumpled up little paper napkins and tooth picks and old fag packets. Or you try and fit them all in the ashtrays which they don’t. And the other thing I don’t get about bars is asking for things and paying for them. You soon get used to the idea that, in Spain, even if you are the only person in a bar, washing up and tidying the cups is more important than whatever it is you want. It isn’t rudeness, it’s just the way it is. You also get used to the idea that, once you have got whatever you want, you become instantly invisible. This means that offering money or standing at the bar waving it is an entirely useless exercise because they can’t see you. So you soon learn to be grateful that you have a drink and don’t worry about paying for it. You can also get another drink and anything else you want, provided you are not proffering money. In the early days this induced in me a sense of profound admiration for the girl in a bar who is in fact extremely busy, and must unfailingly remember everything that everyone has barked at her on her way past, and provided you are patient will unfailingly deliver, and yet manages to keep in her head the details of what everyone has had. Except that, when you are leaving and have finally managed to persuade her to take your money, she doesn’t actually remember what you had and you have to tell her. There is thus a touching level of trust between bars and their customers which I find totally admirable, if not completely reliable. Anyway, the German girl and her dad had decided to get a taxi into Logrono because she had been there before and knew a good place, and he was all in. We knew we were stopping so we left them there.
The albergue in Viana upsets Claire for a number of reasons. Firstly the woman on the desk is bossy and unhelpful, which is very unusual, secondly the dormitories have three storey bunk beds, which does seem a bit extreme, and they seem to have even fewer loos than Claire reckons are decent anyway, We stomp out and book into the very nice hotel up the street with proper beds, TV, free internet and our own bath. In the meantime, Marino and Rose have arrived and Rose’s feet are obviously worse, but Marino says they have plenty of time to get to Logrono. We tell Rose to tell him to stop but she says he just gets bored and grumpy, so off they go.
Claire wanders around and I have a lie down, something I find myself quite good at at the end of the day and before we eat. We have already rather gone off large towns as being a bit noisy and smelly and full of traffic so the plan is to walk through Logrono the next day and see how far we get. The answer turns out to be about 20 km before we have both had enough. We have just stopped to decide where we are when a little van with windows pulls up and they ask us if we want a lift. They are going further than we are and will drop us off, which is perfect.
In the middle of town we instantly see the Aussies, which naturally calls for drinks all round. I have a coke and since being on the Camino have had almost no alcohol at all. I just seem to have gone off it. What with having stopped smoking and no alcohol and all this walking I am in some danger of having no decent vices at all!
Two of the Aussie brigade were originally Chinese and on the way in had spotted a Chinese restaurant and had gone in to practise their Mandarin on them. The result was that the restaurant agreed to cook them all a special Chinese meal and they invited us too. So we trouped up in the evening and had a stupendous Chinese meal. As we came out of the hotel to set off in the morning we found Marino with Rose, watery eyed and forlorn sitting on a bench by the bus stop. The silly bugger had pushed her too hard and now she’d had enough. It was such a shame and all his fault. We didn’t see them again and I suspect they had to abandon it.
I can’t remember whether there was anywhere at all to stop for coffee that day, and, as usual, we had brought nothing with us to eat. I had gone through a little patch of remembering reading about energy rations, such as chocolate and Kendal mint cake, but we hadn’t got any. I had suggested that we ought to carry some muesli bars or something. Those things that the Americans called power bars because we must need the energy for a hard climb. After all, tennis players seemed to need to eat energy foods like bananas just to hit a small ball over a low net for a bit, so how much greater would our need be. So I bought some and ten minutes later Claire announced that she could feel her energy levels dropping rapidly, so we ate them and that was that really. Well, I did get some more and then we lost them and when we found them a few days later we just ate them straight away in case they went awol again, and we weren’t going uphill or anything. In fact I think we were watching Spanish television which we didn’t understand a word of but condemned as being complete twaddle anyway.
It won’t surprise you that television we didn’t understand a word of was on all the time in every café or bar we went into. For most of the time it was football or dancing pop groups. Anyway, in anything slightly bigger than a village there is likely to be one bar open when you are bunged out of the albergue in the morning. Apart from those who have left at 6.30 and are now pounding their way down the Camino in the pitch dark, the rest of us bung our packs down on the pavement outside and pile into the bar for at least a cup of coffee before we start. Even at this time of day the television is on of course, but the dancers are replaced by news – and news in pictures, and news in pictures includes the weather in pictures and this is the only item on television that all pilgrims are interested in and can understand. It shows a picture of Spain which is slightly oddly shaped because Portugal has been excised from it, rather like in the UK where The Republic of Ireland wasn’t our responsibility and therefore also wasn’t allowed weather. Other parts of Spain are now suffering from floods of biblical proportions, bringing Barcelona to a standstill, isolating some quite large towns and the news is full of pictures of gratifyingly large numbers of cars and other debris floating down main streets and piling up in mangled heaps with their indicators and windscreen wipers still working. This is of no interest to us at all. All we want to know is whether that cloud thing is actually over exactly where we are this morning and has it got rainy grahics coming out of it. On this day the answer to both is yes, but the clouds either side haven’t so we are hopeful.
Actually it is warm, cloudy, but dry until the early afternoon when it begins to mizzle just as we are coming into a giant building site which is obviously going to be a huge housing estate. We have just passed a golf course and now go by a very pretentious clubhouse. It may or may not be open and have a bar, but it just has that look about it that says it is unlikely to be pleased to see damp pilgrims who might be suspiciously interested in peace or God and are going to plonk their packs on your shiny floor and quite possibly smoke roll ups – so we don’t bother.
We think it may be an urbanisation plan to create a complete golf town, but at the moment this huge boring housing estate is the most arid thing we have come across. And the mizzle is now rain and we have to put on our raingear. Raingear is quite a posh description of what we have. Not really counting on rain and conscious of both weight and cost we have bought ponchos which are still in their original packs about the size of a small jiffy bag and turn out to be only marginally more substantial than a bin liner. Still, they keep the rain off everything except our feet, and after less than an hour it stops. As I take mine off I get more water down my neck than I did when it was raining and I gently steam as we walk the rest of the way to Santo Domingo.
We are still quite slow and by the time we arrive the main dormitory is full but there is another. Down a passage and along a couple of planks we come into a room the size of a large gymnasium with more than 100 beds in it. Well, it’s not so much a room as a big space in a building which isn’t quite finished yet. Well actually not finished at all. It has got walls but is just boarded up where the windows are going to be – and there is quite a lot of water coming through the ceiling, so there obviously aren’t any beds under those bits. I was fine but some people did find the constant splashing of dripping water made it hard for them to sleep. And there were loos – admittedly outside, round the corner, along a plank and next to the chicken coop – and no hot water, but there were loos – and inside our bit wasn’t being dripped on much , and the beds were single storey jobs so it was fine. We settled in, waved at those we knew, saw to our feet, and then we could relax. The church next to the albergue has now become a cathedral and is famous for having live hens in it, spares being kept in the small yard at the back of the cathedral in a hen coop next to our loos.
So now I have to tell you why there should be hens in a cathedral in an otherwise totally unremarkable town 590 km from Santiago. It is an endearing fairy tale and an example of one of the problems for the faithful in being able to reconcile this sort of harmless myth with the slaughter of three million totally innocent South American Indians in the name of the same God, the ones you will remember whose mass deaths have provided the bling in the churches. The story goes like this: A pilgrim couple and their son stopped at an inn in Santo Domingo on their way to Santiago. The innkeeper’s daughter took a fancy to the lad, who devoutly resisted her advances. Spurned, she hid a goblet in his knapsack and after they had left, reported him for stealing it. He was duly caught, condemned and hung. Apparently his parents failed to notice that they were either not tripping over him or that he was totally failing to keep up. On their way back – over 1000 km later – they came upon him hanging, but miraculously not dead. They rushed off to the local sheriff and burst into his house where he was about to tuck into a hearty meal of roast fowl and explained the situation. The sheriff said something like remembering the thieving little bugger and that he had about as much chance of still being alive as this dinner in front of him. Whereupon the chickens miraculously jumped up and left the table. The sheriff was impressed – had the lad cut down and pardoned and that was that. Well, it is not recorded if the girl got her come-uppance or whether the lad and his parents needed subsequent counselling. Neither does history record why this should mean that you have to keep a couple of hens in a cathedral for evermore.
Now, I don’t mean to be difficult about this, but how are the faithful to distinguish between a story like this which they are not likely to be condemned to hell for not believing, and definitely being condemned to hell for not believing things which are equally implausible. I suppose not understanding it is a problem that we heathens have and that I should just be grateful that I am not arbitrarily slaughtered just for being one.
The following day’s trip is not a great pleasure since more than half of it is along a main road. The precise route of the Camino is sometimes a bit of a problem. The actual path was more or less fixed long before many of the roads were built. But the Camino has always had only one purpose, which is to take pilgrims to Santiago. However, as history moved on and towns and villages waxed and waned in importance for other reasons they became connected to each other in different patterns to the Camino, and in some cases hardly connected to anything at all. There are some villages that would long since have melted back into the earth, of which they were made, had they not been connected to each other by the Camino. Modern local authorities have been less sensitive about the preservation of its ancient course and given half a chance will run it beside a new road or motorway, partly because of the convenience of being able to maintain it.
Half way between Santo Domingo and Belorado, we cross from Rioja to Castille and Leon, the latter having a reputation for paying lip service to the importance of the Camino but being fairly insensitive about maintaining its natural pathways cross country. A manifestation of this insensitivity is the use of a cartoon rodent with a cape, floppy hat and a stick as a logo for the part of the Camino for which they are responsible. This rat, or whatever it is, has been produced by the Department of Culture and Tourism, I expect at huge expense, and is treated with undiluted dislike and derision by all of us. I shall be writing to tell them so. Claire says it’s a waste of time but that’s not the point.
Belorado would have been fairly unremarkable apart from our meeting with Ben. Ben was a very English looking chap with a white trilby hat who we had first noticed standing rather upright to the side of the path in open country smoking a cigarette in a cigarette holder. Although it was pretty posy, it also had a certain degree of panache, so when we saw him at the albergue we both recognised him and said hello. He was French, although he did have an English grandparent and, yes, he was on his own and would like to come and eat with us, so he did. Now you can imagine that there are many reasons why people walk the Camino, and probably even more reasons why they say they are doing it. The simplest are probably those who regard it as a genuine religious pilgrimage and are looking forward to being let off their sins, and those, like us, who take advantage of the logistical support system to make one of the world’s top ten walks available to those of us who couldn’t afford an entourage of support vehicles, or a small army of peasant bearers to attempt a walk of this length anywhere else in the world. Even to us this is not just a holiday because nothing this arduous or on this scale can be just a holiday. But for others it is a much more complicated journey. Some have come to look for something and others to escape. There are those who come to find out who they are and those who know who they are and hope the journey will help them to be something else. There are those who come to be alone and those who come to be with others. Some who want to remember and some who want to forget. And there are those who have a problem they hope the Camino will solve for them and Ben is one of those. As we sit down we see that he has brought to the table a sort of fat filofax thing and within seconds, bits of it are being extracted to demonstrate and support the story he needs to tell us.
He is about 45 and is married to a beautiful woman who is the mother of his two lovely children. He is successful at work but has recently realised that his commitment to work has meant that he doesn’t really know his children and that this had had a profound effect on him. However, he also realises that the real love of his life is someone he should have married twenty years ago and didn’t, due to what he now describes as a misunderstanding. The one he didn’t marry married a Catholic priest who had to leave the church to marry her, at which point she realised that she only truly loved Ben and so for 14 years has refused to consummate the marriage. Now at the age of 45 and still, according to Ben, a virgin, she wants to have Ben’s baby – so that’s why he is on the Camino and what do we think he should do ? Claire said it was quite obvious what he was going to do so he should just go home and get on with it – and that having a baby at 45 was a silly idea. Then we went back to the albergue and in the morning went our separate ways.
At Belorado we had decided to walk as far as we could the next day, and then get a bus into Burgos, because the road in is long and industrial and horrible. In the morning it is drizzling and we decide not to walk at all and just get a bus. We go guiltily down to the bus depot and skulk in a corner. First a German couple turn up who want to do a forest diversion and don’t think they will have time to do it all if they don’t bus part of it. Then Pauline turns up, who we haven’t seen for at least a week and has miraculously caught us up thanks to the divine bus. In fact she is walking when she can and bussing when she can’t. She is followed by a number of the young and fit. When the bus arrives it is already half full and by the time we set off it is mainly a pilgrim bus with a few locals in it. The rain gets worse and the route into Burgos is at least as horrible as we thought it would be, but we still feel we have cheated when we pile out at Burgos bus station.
We walk by the river, go to the cathedral which is pretty big, have a look at the city wall and buy a couple of ponchos which are much more substantial than our current bin liners, but of course bulkier and heavier. As usual, there are various sculptures in the city devoted to pilgrims and we think they are pretty good. Unusually the albergue is almost the other side of the City in a park so we have opted for a very reasonable hotel in the centre. In the evening we have the usual problem, which is that no restaurants open until at least 8 o’clock. We don’t have to be back in the dorm for lights out at 10 but we are already used to going to bed early and after our indolent performance that day getting the bus we are looking forward to getting out of the city and walking.
On the way out of Burgos, probably because we are chatting to some others, we go the wrong way for the only time until we get to Santiago. Since the whole journey is so daunting, especially early on, the idea of having to retrace even a single step is a small disaster and the entire route is almost impeccably marked from the moment you leave the office on the main street in St. Jean in France. The motif of the Camino is a scallop shell – it appears along the whole route – on doors, walls, in the pavement, in gates, on railings and bridges, on arches, tunnels and lintels. For general signage the shell is minimalised to a short line base with radiating lines representing the ridges of the shell, rather like a splayed hand but with more fingers. There are lots of occasions when the way crosses a road and wherever it does it is signed. The paths themselves are almost always indicated with a concrete or real milestone with the logo cast in or set in a glazed tile and often with an arrow. In town the glazed tile will frequently be set into walls if the path is not marked by some representation of shells in the pavement. However, by far the most plentiful, helpful and welcome signs are little painted yellow arrows – they are on pavements, roads, buildings, trees, rocks, lampposts, in fact almost any flat surface on which you can paint a yellow arrow has got one. In the countryside, if there is even the slightest ambiguity about which path to take, there will be a neatly made pattern of small rocks and stones in the shape of an arrow on the path, made by other walkers.
It was also precisely because we hadn’t seen a comforting yellow arrow for half a mile which made us realise we were going the wrong way. Well, that and the fact that there was a couple coming back towards us waving their arms and no-one behind us. So we retraced our steps and set off into what became the most gentle and peaceful part of our journey.
The meseta turns out to be a huge area of rolling flat top hills in which life seems to subsist on cereal crops and birds, no trees and almost no villages. Whilst we are happy to chat to everyone in the evenings, share a few minutes together as they pass us, or exchange pleasantries at coffee stops if there are any, while walking we often prefer to be just in the company of each other.
Despite the number of people walking the same route, we surprisingly often find we are the only visible humans in the landscape and if there is no one there, there is no sound. It is a gentle solitude which is one of the great pleasures of the Camino.
We have now been walking for more than two weeks and I have given up trying to get a decent cup of coffee. This is a shame because brief stops during the day are pretty indispensable and coffee is what you need when you stop. In the good old days, I could have had a cigarette as well and I am surprised at how many do, but that is a pleasure past – as it seems is coffee in Spain. As soon as I mention it to Claire and complain that all I want is an Americano, she heaves one of those ‘oh for god sake’ expressions and reminds me that I spent the entire time in America moaning about their coffee as well. This is true because, except in special coffee shops, America buys crap coffee, puts insufficient of it into Cona machines, hides it until it is stewed and then insists that you can have as much as you want. In England asking for a Americano will almost always produce a drinkable cup of coffee. This consists of two espresso shots in something about the size of a breakfast cup, nearly topped up with boiling water and a small amount of milk, hot or cold. What could be difficult about that? Well, in Spain it is not just difficult, it is impossible. At least it is on the Camino. I am sure that in the cities it is no problem at all. And it is not for lack of decent coffee or machines – even bars in villages made almost entirely of mud and sticks have proper coffee machines. The problem is that their cups aren’t big enough. So asking for an Americano produces the kind of blank look which instantly condemns you as an imbecile, and asking for anything else which even mentions milk gets you one shot of coffee in a glass filled up with hot milk. That’s what you get. To begin with I would try waiting until the shot was in and then yelling at them to stop – persuade them to fill it with hot water and then a dash of milk – hard work and hardly worth it – partly because, if you have another one it will be a shot filled up with hot milk.
Hornillos is exactly one of those villages that would probably have disappeared had it not been for the Camino. It is not even on a minor road and, although you can probably get to it by car, I am not sure that the road to it goes anywhere else. It does of course contain a disproportionately large church next to which is the municipal albergue. On the opposite side of the street is the only bar run by the same woman who looks after the albergue. By strange coincidence the bar is also the only place in the village where you can get fed. I suppose it is a kind of monopoly, but not one anyone would mind very much about – except that she is a bit of a tyrant. There are two dormitories and since it is now late in the season and numbers are falling, she only wants to open one of them, which would be sort of okay except that it is by far the most cramped place we have stayed in and there really is no room between the bunks to put your stuff, which means you can only really unpack or get sorted out in relays. It has two other big disadvantages, other than no hot water – one loo for all of us and John the Foot. John the foot is the South African nutcase we last saw in Puenta la Reina, and who we thought was now safely ahead of us . One of the reasons we had gone wrong on the way out of Bourgos was that Dallan, an affable Irish Gallic teacher was telling us that he had come across John, who had problems with his foot but was still plodding on despite this and the blisters he had got from his two stupid sticks and Dallan had dubbed him John the Foot.
We set off happily next day for the open rolling peace of the meseta. Once again there was very little sign of life until we dropped suddenly off a hill and into a small village, apparently trapped in its steep folding sides. It seemed that almost everyone had stopped for a coffee or something and John the Foot was holding forth about life in general and the iniquities of albergues with only one loo and how they ought to be reported. I must admit that this was being treated by his ambushed audience with a benign tolerance that I couldn’t muster. In due course we set off again and in due course were passed again by Dallan and the Norwegian women and later by a couple of slightly over loud English lawyers who had done a lot of walking and were back for a second stint on the Camino with packs that were too heavy again and though they were passing us, were suffering. I had a horrible feeling that they rather enjoyed not speaking any Spanish at all, and that if “johnny foreigner ” didn’t understand you, you just said it again louder. And over the next four days they insisted on hailing us from shouting distance with the latest scores in some rugby competition that I didn’t know was on and didn’t care about. Apart from that Don and Phil were fine.
Castrojerez was at the end of this particular day and the privations of the previous night called for a decent bedroom with an ensuite – a bath and a view which the book quite correctly told us we could get, and is right. However, apart from the albergue the rest of the town is either closed for the season or being dug up. Actually this closed for the season thing is beginning to be a bit of a worry but since it hasn’t affected us yet, we decide to ignore it. The hotel has a large sunny terrace and in the later afternoon is still warm and pleasant. Sitting on the terrace are an Irish group of half a dozen. I have a feeling that we first met them in Burgos. Anyhow we now happily chat and drink until it is time to eat.
They have done at least part of the Camino before and this time are going only from Burgos to Leon, but in a slightly complicated way since one of the group is currently somewhere else and may be ill and one wasn’t up to walking that day so went with the taxi that was carrying their stuff. They were sending their stuff ahead the next day and had overbooked their hotel so they agreed to send our packs with theirs in the taxi and we would take their spare room, which saved any problem over cancellations etc. – so that was good.
It was especially good because Claire was developing a definite snuffle, was feeling a bit sorry for herself and the next day was over 26km with a long steep climb early on.
Rather to our surprise we arrived in Fromista not completely paralysed and were met by the Norwegian pair who had been hoping to see us to say goodbye because they had to catch a train which would eventually take them home. A couple of old codgers in the square assured Claire that the farmacia wouldn’t open until the following day, but actually it did so she was able to get a bucketful of pills and potions which quite possibly had no effect at all. Don and Phil, the two very English lawyers, turned up in the hotel bar with Phil’s feet in pretty poor shape and trying to persuade Don to go on without him, but I think they both stopped because we didn’t see them after that.
The Irish group were going to Carrion the next day as we were hoping to, and had overbooked again so we made the same arrangement for them to take our packs and we would use the room they didn’t need. In the event Carrion turned out to be an eventful stop. At some point in the previous two or three days at 2 or 3 in the afternoon we had passed Maria, and since passing anyone was an event for us, it deserves some explanation. Maria was actually Sister Maria – an 85 year old peasant nun from somewhere in the south of France. She was less than 5 ft. tall and with a walking pole considerably longer than 6 foot. She wore a floppy hat, a cloak, was walking splay footed in what looked a bit like galoshes and in addition to a back pack was dangling a supermarket bag which probably had lunch in it. She looked all in and it was a great relief that at the next village she decided to stop at the small albergue. We ambled on and a couple of miles before Carrion, she caught us up. The albergue had been shut so she had to keep going. She was fine and we shouldn’t wait for her. So off we went with Claire refusing to allow me even to pause for breath for fear of being overtaken by an 85 year old Disney pilgrim who looked exactly like the little old woman in the Lady Killers.
After checking into the hotel and having a bath and doing our feet, we went out into the square and immediately bumped into Dallan, the pipe playing Gaelic teacher who had been seriously attacked by bed bugs further back and was covered in little red sores where he had been bitten. It transpired that this was the reason the albergue Sister Maria had tried was shut. It had been closed for fumigation. This was the first time we had come up against the reality of bed bugs, realised how easily they could pass down the narrow path of the Camino and how they might already have been carried ahead of us by faster walkers. We had, for example, been warned not to drink the water at Carrion, way back in Pamplona by someone whose sister was a few weeks ahead of her and said that lots of people had got sick at Carrion. I had written this carefully on the itinerary in the book and then failed to notice it until after we left Carrion, having drunk tap water all the time.
It was not unusual to meet people who drank only bottled water, a lot who had their own cover for the albergue mattresses and pillows – some who wouldn’t use the blankets at all, and a few who wouldn’t use the showers without beach shoes. Partly because these things hadn’t occurred to us, we saved a bit of weight, trusted to luck and got away with it. After Carrion we did ask people about bed bugs but it seemed to go away as a problem so we forgot about it.
When we went to eat, the only table with any space was with Mawdri and John, yet more Irish, and John the Foot. Rather like Tigger, John is gradually becoming less bouncy and Claire has admitted to becoming quite fond of the clompy idiot as time has gone on, but she can’t resist goading him, which only makes him worse. Towards the end of the meal Sister Maria appears to warm applause and greetings all round, and obviously enjoys the attention – she really does look too fragile to do much more than walk down the garden, but Claire declares her to be as tough as old boots and she’s probably right. Claire on the other hand is completely pathetic and by the end of the meal is feeling like death warmed up, despite having had all the fun of goading John the Foot. We decide for the first time to take a day off and stay a second night in Carrion.
On our day off we were sitting idly outside a café having some lunch, Claire’s illness having failed to dim her appetite, when a young woman had arrived with her pack, put it by a table, asked some people to keep an eye on it, disappeared, came back, seemed somewhat distracted and was obviously looking or waiting for someone. After about 10 minutes Ben the Frenchman appeared and we had yelled a hello at him before realising that he was the person that the young woman was waiting for. Since she was obviously neither his wife nor the 45 year old virgin love of his life, the plot thickened. He came over to say hello and explained that this was who he told us he had arranged to meet – which he hadn’t and which didn’t explain anything at all. So we exchanged a few more pleasantries, said cheerio and never saw him again.
A day’s rest seemed to be a good idea and by the next morning we were keen to be out into the fresh air again. The next section seemed to be generally regarded as a bit of a bogey. At Cizor Menor, Maribel had told us that it was a particularly featureless path which made it difficult to judge whether you were actually getting anywhere which was a bit depressing, and that if married couples were going to argue it was here that they would do it. We were also told that this was the section where the Camino, instead of being an external physical journey, would become an internal spiritual journey. Everyone seemed to have some story about the relentless oppression of this day. Even the book pointed out that there was 17.5 km of absolutely nothing at all so we should make sure we had breakfast, took food, filled our water flasks with plenty of water and, because there was no shade, to make sure we had sufficient sun screen. So, as usual, we had no breakfast, took no food, packed our small bottle of water, didn’t have any sunscreen anyway, and set off. Okay, one of these days we will get our come-uppance, but this wasn’t one of them.
At the end of this stretch was Calzadilla, a very small farming village, with a very reasonable small hotel, run by a man who preferred walking the Camino in the dead of winter when all us softy lot had gone home.
Outside, sitting in the sun, was an English trio we had met earlier in the day, and Mark, an American in his 30s from LA who had specially bought some wireless piece of technology so that he could keep in touch with the real world and had been irritated to discover that in the virtually unpopulated mountainous hills of Northern Spain it had totally failed to work – which generally amused those of us who hadn’t even brought watches and already had to be told what day it was.
The English three were waiting for a taxi – well there wasn’t a taxi so what was probably one of the hotelier’s relatives was going to take them in a minute, about an hour ago and somebody said something about manana. It reminded me of Dallan who had said that they had the equivalent of manana in Ireland but without manana’s sense of urgency.
It also reminded me of the many different and odd ways in which people travel the Camino. This lot had booked into a hotel somewhere else and were now going to be taken back there. Tomorrow they would be ferried back out here to carry on, and we would find ourselves having dinner with them in Sahagun, but whether they stayed there or somewhere else, I don’t know. Of course the Aussies, being looked after by Gary had full logistic support because he didn’t walk. He drove the van and rescued them if necessary, but they too might disappear somewhere else entirely at night and then reappear in the morning.
Then there was the German couple who we often met coming the other way. This was so unusual that you really paid attention if anyone came towards you. The Camino was not an entirely exclusive route, so that sometimes it was shared with National Walking Routes or recreational routes near towns. In these cases you expected to see other walkers or joggers, and out in the country the occasional shepherd, farm worker or hunter for mushrooms, chestnuts or walnuts. However, serious walkers with packs coming the other way usually meant only one thing. Dedicated individuals who, having walked all the way to Santiago, were now walking back as well. They often had a slightly abstracted look about them and often didn’t flicker as they passed, but that may have been due to being the one person who has to say hello to an endless stream of people going the other way, which after a while would probably be a bit wearing.
The jolly german couple had a car. So each day they went to the next stop and walked half way back to where they had finished the day before. Then they turned round again and walked back to the car. They might then go somewhere else entirely to spend the night. In this way they only saw half the Camino, but in the end would have walked the same distance as if they had walked it all. Now I don’t want to be accused of stereotyping or anything, but it does seem to me that only those with a certain kind of mindset can persuade themselves that this is the same thing as walking the Camino.
Then there was the rather sweet story of the elderly group who wanted to make the journey together but knew they would have to do it in small sections over a period of time. So they started with the last little bit just to make sure that everyone got to Santiago and then worked backwards over the following years so that those who were left did the whole thing, but they had all got to Santiago together.
There were some groups who took a car and took it in turns to drive, and a bunch of Norwegians who had a formula I never worked out. In fact it was only by chance we realised they had a formula at all. For quite a long stretch we would see them at the evening meal and exchange pleasantries and they would often be having breakfast when we set out in the morning. Whilst we would sometimes pass them in the afternoon, it never really occurred to us to wonder how we came to be passing them having left them behind at breakfast. It was only when we met one of them coming the other way, looking for the car, he said, that we realised, but never did work out what they were actually doing.
In two or three days time we are going to have to face Leon, which with a population of half a million is by far the biggest city on the Camino. I mention this because Mark, thwarted by his own technology, has been using the hotel’s computer to find that all the hotels in Leon are booked for when he anticipates getting there, due to some festival or other. Since we have yet to book anything in advance, or get left out in the cold, we decide to ignore this technology omen and hope for the best.
The meal that night is the first time we meet Charlotte, a batty little Australian with orange hair, who shortly before the end of the meal has to disappear in order to be violently ill.
The following morning we set off for Sahagun and arrive in plenty of time to get organised and have dinner with the English trio in the restaurant which has remained firmly shut with its lights off until 8.30. The significance of Sahagun to me is that it is just over half way to Santiago, which means we have now covered around 250 miles. I really am very surprised to be here at all, especially because of those of all ages who have had to abandon it. Two small factors may have helped. One is that we have no end date so that within reason we can take the time it takes, and the other is that, whilst we haven’t exactly strolled it, despite what Claire says, we haven’t overdone it. The very next day we meet a couple who we fear will suffer the same fate as Marino and Rose, because Marino had insisted that they keep going even though Rose was clearly exhausted. We had decided to head to Herminillos, and arrived at lunchtime and at the albergue and bar, sat in the sun and had a coke and a sandwich. We had arrived just at the moment a Canadian couple were about to leave, except that it was fairly obvious that she wouldn’t mind a sit down and a sandwich herself. They did stay for a bit and I told them the story of Marino and Rose as an oblique way of suggesting that he was in danger of doing the same thing and we left. Since it was so early we decided to cut across country to El Burgo Ranero, which was actually on a very rare alternative route. Coming into El Burgo we followed a little path and a couple of planks over a ditch to make a dash, probably illegal, but well used, over the main railway line and into the town. It was the first little town we had come to which seemed to have neither a centre nor an old bit. We went to a hostel opposite the albergue. When we arrived the only occupants of the bar were four old men playing dominoes. Each insisted on smashing his next tile down on the table with a kind of aggressive defiance totally out of proportion to that warranted by a simple game of dominoes, but presumably that’s what they usually did and it kept them happy. The next day was to be a cunning plan. Even the book had suggested that taking a bus into Leon might be a good idea, but suggested that, whilst whizzing past them, you might offer a prayer for those who were walking, which as a justification was a bit weedy – but the principle seemed sound enough. Since it was over 20 km to Mansilla, which was then only about 7 miles out of Leon, we would go to Mansilla, which the book told us had a bus station and get a bus. On the way we stopped for a break at a bar and amongst others we recognised were the Canadian couple we had met the day before. He said that he had taken my remarks about Marino and Rose very seriously which was gratifying, but she still looked pretty whacked so I’m not sure what he was actually doing about it. We didn’t see them again and so I hope they were okay.
When we got to Mansilla we found that the hotels in Leon were full, not because Leon had some kind of festival on but that it was a national holiday and the whole of Spain was shut and there were no buses. I persuaded a slightly grumpy Claire that it would be a piece of cake to hitch, which she still isn’t that keen on, especially if it means standing on the side of a fast main road, which in this case it did. Fortunately for me we didn’t have to wait long for a nice young man in a very comfortable car to stop and, because he lived in the centre himself, dropped us off not much more than 100 yards from the cathedral. As we are gathering our stuff we see Tommy and the Irish group setting off in a taxi. They are stopping here so we wish them good luck and goodbye. Partly because Mark had already told us the hotels were full, we headed for the albergue.
This one was run by the Benedictines, which made it a bit different. Apparently part of the articles of the Benedictines is that they must offer hospitality and so unlike most of the other albergues they can’t actually bung you out on the street. So, you may stay there for one night for a donation if you would like to make one. You may stay another night but there is a charge. In fact, like the monks at Roncesvalles they have realised that some people are prepared to pay for more than a bunk bed in a dormitory and a one fiftieth share in a couple of loos. So you can stay in part of the monastery they have now converted to complete luxury for 90 euros a night. Unusually, the dorms are segregated into one for men and one for women and married couples – I don’t know how married you have to be but you only get the usual bunk bed anyway. In the kitchen is Charlotte, who has now recovered from being violently ill and who we are delighted to see. The doors are shut at 9.30 which is the earliest yet so we already know we won’t have time to eat. In the warm afternoon sun we potter up to look at the cathedral. The west doors are wide open, which makes getting in much more impressive and a lot easier than wiggling your way in through the small air lock doors which creak and squeak and bang. I am surprised at how often people are allowed to amble about inside churches of all kinds while services are going on, taking millions of flash photos on their phones and Leon cathedral is one of them.
Claire is absolutely knocked out by the stained glass in the huge Rose windows. On our journey churches have tended not to have big windows and not a great deal of stained glass. What there has been are small windows glazed with alabaster panels which are bit like translucent marble. It produces a soft glow if the light outside is bright, but is still pretty gloomy in most churches.
There is a choir practice going on so we just sit quietly and listen. Even though this is a far more important church, they aren’t a patch on the lot at Puenta la Reina. After a bit people in posh frocks start turning up and sitting in a bit that had been roped off. The suits and posh frocks turned from a trickle to a steady stream and suddenly it was a wedding, whilst all the time us peasants wandered around, sat and watched, and if we had them, shushed our children.
At the Benedictine albergue there was a service in the attached monastery before bed which Claire wanted to go to so we went to find a shop where we could get something for supper, most of which we had already eaten by the time we got back. By the time of the service Claire is already in bed and as usual I am asleep before lights out. By the time we are surfacing in the morning Charlotte has upped and gone.
We have decided that we are going to get a bus out of Leon as well as having hitched in so we go down to the bus station to get a ticket and then spend the rest of the morning in Leon, before creeping on to the bus, which we don’t feel too bad about since getting out of Leon is a long, smelly and pretty depressing process.
By the time we get to Hospital del Orbigo we are back in open country and feeling slightly more guilty. Despite our indolence we decide we need a bath, so we book into the only hotel, which has a brilliant view over a long arched Roman bridge but wants 60 euros for a room we would normally not expect to pay more than 40 for. We decide to cough up, manage to buy something for a late lunch and are sitting eating it in the square in the hot sun when Mark turns up. He has booked into the same hotel in advance and is pretty pissed off at having to pay 60 euros himself and even more so when he finds we are paying the same. He stomps off to have a bit of a go at the owner and finds that a single room is 40 euros but the room he has contains two beds, so even though he only wants one of them he has to pay for a double room. This is not the usual convention so this hotel really is pulling a bit of a fast one as well as charging over the top. Mind you, we have agreed to pay so it serves us right. And, this hotel owner or boss turns out to be one of only two people in the whole journey who keeps our passports until we have paid the next morning. It is a sad reflection on him that being a bit of a crook himself, he automatically assumes everyone else is. There are lots of people like that and I am glad I am not one of them. It leaves us with a slightly nasty taste and combined with a bit of bus guilt, we both feel a huge sense of release when we get out into open space in the morning. It is quite hilly and so it is a hard walk, and as far as I remember there is nowhere to stop for coffee or a sandwich. And it is one of those days when we walk in splendid isolation having seen almost no-one. During our journey this has become more likely for a couple of reasons. First, numbers on the Camino are dropping off rapidly after the end of September and secondly, we are getting faster – not fast, but not so slow. If you stand still, in the end you will see everyone because they all pass you, but the more average you become the more chance you have of travelling in your own little bubble of space. It is probably mid afternoon when we arrive at the top of a hill overlooking Astorga. We have now been walking for nearly a month and for the first time, have almost finished the bottle of water we have with us. We are just getting ourselves together to set off down the hill when a small orange head with a floppy hat appears over the bluff.
I don’t know what it is about Charlotte, but I have the feeling that she is one of those people who couldn’t use a fountain pen without getting ink on her fingers and all over whatever she was writing on. This is not a criticism you understand, I am just trying to describe her. Her pack seems to have more things tied on to it than most people’s, and some things dangling off the things tied on, and every now and then on our walk together into Astorga something drops off. She is a plucky walker and irrepressibly cheerful and we are pleased to see her.
When we come into Astorga we go to the first albergue we come to and she goes on up to the one near the cathedral. We meet for a drink in the early evening sun. Charlotte has heard that the rather posh Gaudi Restaurant offers a cheap pilgrim menu so we agree to meet there at 8 o’clock which is when it says it opens. The albergue costs E4 each. If you want, you can have a room for two but it costs more – E6. It has bunk beds, a basin and a stunning view over the Leon mountains, which is where we are heading.
It is Sunday and, although the cathedral is open, lots of things are shut – including the Gaudi museum of the Camino which had been open for a couple of hours in the morning, but not until well after walkers had set off and long before a new lot could possibly arrive. Whilst I have not been to Barcelona, I have of course heard of Gaudi and he would be the main reason I would go there. However, having now seen a couple of his buildings in other places, I am not so sure. I didn’t realise he was such an iconic figure in Spain. He designed a building in Leon which is ranked with the cathedral as one of the main tourist attractions of the city. What I saw was a very substantial realisation of the best of the Disney castle drawing studio and put it down to a soppy sentimental glich in his career, or something I, as a philistine, had missed. And now here in Astorga is another one and even more Disney than before. However, it did have lots of stained glass so it would have been nice to see inside.
However, the Gaudi restaurant is open, although, when we go in there, it is virtually empty and in a corner the staff are eating their own meal. Nevertheless, on production of our pilgrim passports we are treated to a very nice meal for E10, whilst everyone else, once they arrive, has to pay loads more. Charlotte is a nurse and art therapist and tells us she is the black sheep of a very straight family. This clearly hurts her a lot and, being on the Camino despite having two grown up sons only serves to confirm the family’s view that she is a lost cause. The important thing is that it didn’t stop her coming.
That night, unconnected with Gaudi since each of us ate the same things, Claire is violently ill and by the morning is in a pretty sorry state. There is absolutely no way she is going to go anywhere. I go down with a pile of washing to do and ask if they are prepared to let us stay a second night. That is no problem they say, the washing is taken from me despite my protestations that I should do it myself, and someone turns up with medicine, which in due course we can replace for the benefit of the next sufferer. Whether it is actually the water somewhere or a bug from food depends on which rumour you believe – but the reality is that these bouts are not uncommon and are just bad luck. During the day the washing has magically reappeared, dried and folded in our room, and I have replaced the medicine. Claire’s sickness has also allowed me to revisit the Gaudi museum to give him a chance to redeem himself so far as I am concerned – except that it is shut on Mondays as well. This is going to have to be another stiff letter to someone . Anything that is closed for two days a week means that nearly a third of pilgrims can’t visit it –and if you are a pilgrim you can’t hang around an extra day because you’re supposed to be walking, and anyway the albergue won’t let you, and what’s the point of opening something at 10 or 11 when we all get bunged out at 8. Many of us don’t have watches, some of us have to be told what day it is and things being closed on Sundays is a weekly surprise. Okay, I don’t expect banks and offices to panda to a bunch of sometimes slightly grubby pilgrims, but you would have thought that the museum of the Camino would have made a bit of a bloody effort.
Various people have talked about having brought foul weather gear, and some have said that since we haven’t yet reached the highest point of the Camino it has been known to snow even at this time of the year. I haven’t even thought about this and we are ill equipped to deal with proper bad weather. If it takes Claire a few days to recover and the weather breaks, that could be it and for the first time I find myself caring about completing the journey. The whole idea of being stopped as opposed to just stopping, affects me much more than I had imagined it would.
This of course is not what I have told Claire, and by the evening, although everything has slowed down, she is pretty exhausted and unlikely to be recovered in time for the next day. I went down to see if they would let us stay yet another night, and they said we should stay until Claire was better. When I said how grateful I was and how kind they had been he said, ’That’s what we are for, to be kind to pilgrims’. If I was going to get soppy and sentimental on our journey this would be a good time to do it.
By the following morning Claire has had a peaceful night and declares herself fit for walking. I believe her because I want to. I had discussed the possibility of transporting our stuff with albergue desk and this morning it happened that a couple of other people wanted to do the same, go as far us and said they would organise it which was fine.
Not having our packs for the first time in a week or so is a real bonus and we manage a day with long steady climbs with relative ease, despite my worries about Claire not being back to normal. In fact she is not feeling sufficiently secure to share a loo with the rest of us so we book into the hotel. Our pack has been delivered to the albergue and having already collected it, we wander down in the early evening sun to thank them and settle our share of the cost. Except that I have only the vaguest idea of what they look like or who they are. Luckily his memory is better than mine, and he waves from the bar as soon as we arrive. Ramon introduces himself as Mexican but living in Austin Texas and the older man Geraldo, who is also Mexican and also living in Austin, is his priest. Ramon makes a living by sourcing raw materials for manufacturers and is doing the Camino as atonement for his sinful life, and Geraldo is there to make sure he does it. This is a not entirely believable explanation, but it doesn’t matter much and it will certainly do for the moment. Ramon is probably in his late 40s and would be very good looking with a bit less weight.
He is nevertheless disarmingly charismatic and thinks he can instantly charm women of all ages, which aggravatingly he clearly can. Geraldo is around 70, short and bearded and is apparently a seasoned mountain walker. He also rather overdoes being serious and enigmatic so that, despite Ramon’s deference to him as mentor, I find myself not convinced.
The next day’s section takes us over the highest point on the Camino. Although it is marginally higher than the peak over the Pyrenees, we start much higher up, so instead of a climb of over 4000 feet this is about half that. Nevertheless it is over 26 km and the equivalent of over 30 when adjusted for climb. It is the last point at which I reckon we can be seriously caught out by the weather. We are unlikely to die of exposure because we are never that far from civilization (I did check) but since we really don’t have much in the way of warm clothes, let alone storm proof gear, I am anxious to get it out of the way. So I persuade Ramon and Geraldo that it is hard but do-able and will be good for a penitent and persuade them all that if we do get caught out or completely exhausted we pass through enough villages to be able to get a taxi. I know I have slightly blatted everyone into doing it and I do feel a pang of guilt but not sufficient to relent. In the event the weather is perfect, the scenery is some of the best of the whole journey, and we arrive at the albergue not too late in the afternoon. It is clean and cheerful and run by the most camp old man in suspiciously baggy shorts. It is also just the far side of town so it is good that we can have a beer there and that they will provide us with a communal meal in the evening. I am just beginning to worry about Ramon and Geraldo when they turn up. The reason they are late is not because they have struggled particularly but because they started late and dawdled. As soon as Louis, our host, finds out that Geraldo is a priest he fawns over him embarrassingly and even manages to confuse even Ramon by singing a song to him as soon as he finds out his name. Louis breaks into song very easily and has managed to put quite a lot of us into a sort of twitchy silence by the end of the evening, but he is very kind and helpful. Apparently he has worked as a missionary of some kind in Africa and South America. Much to Louis’s disappointment Ramon and Geraldo decline the communal meal as soon as they find out what it is, declaring that they have a need for more meat than he is offering, which for some reason gives him the giggles. When we arrived he had said that he wasn’t sure there was room on our passport for his rubber stamp and how everyone remarked what a big one it was and that had sent him into giggles as well.
By the then a number of fellow travellers we recognised had turned up, including the trio with the fox terrier that we had first seen in Burgos and then not at all until today. A group such as this is easily noticed and for some reason we had got the impression they were Dutch. In fact they were from the former East Germany and had started in Bordeaux which is about 250 km further back than where we had begun. Olga was exactly like the dog sitting by the loudspeaker in the HMV adverts. Until now I had never really thought about how far a small dog could walk before just sitting down and going to sleep. The answer seemed to be that it was at least as long as us, and probably longer. It turned out that, whilst the three of them were very close friends, there were times when they needed not to be walking together. However, so far as Olga was concerned, they were a unit and she would therefore happily trot up and down between them all day even though they occasionally got separated by quite a lot. There had been a few occasions when they had put bootees on her if she was walking long distances on tarmac because her pads got sore, but otherwise she was fine. Of course she wasn’t allowed into the dormitories but the albergues usually found them somewhere inside in a storeroom or something, and if not Katharine slept outside with her.
According to the book, the next day’s walk was over 30 km and we all decided it was too much and that around 25 was quite enough. Ramon had persuaded Louis (without a great deal of difficulty it must be said) to take our packs himself.
The following morning on a fairly gentle walk into Ponferrada we found ourselves walking with a Swiss woman and her friend who we didn’t really know, but had kept bumping into. As we walk together into the outskirts we pass what looks for all the world like a scene from the middle ages in a film made with the Americans in mind. In front of an adobe mud house with a pantile roof and shutters over the windows rather than glass, are two old women probably in their late sixties, their heads covered and dressed entirely in black. One of them is roasting red peppers over charcoal on a large metal brazier. The other one is sitting scraping the black bits off those already cooked. The Swiss couple take photos and we can’t be bothered to stop and get the camera out, which we regret a hundred yards down the path but too late.
Ponferrada is, or was, a big steel town and the surrounding hills are scarred by the remains of now defunct factories and workings. In the middle of town on a large roundabout is a group sculpture which at a distance we assume to be metal workers of some kind. As we get closer it becomes a group of women, their heads covered, dressed in black roasting and scraping peppers representing a local cottage industry that has being supplying Spain with bottled peppers for centuries. I expect they are now being processed by the Spanish equivalent of Heinz and suddenly begin to suspect that, what we saw earlier, was the result of a time warp, and even if we went back straight away, we wouldn’t be able to find them.
Cacabelos is a slightly odd place and when we arrive appears to be mostly shut even though it is late in the afternoon, by which time everything should be open again even in Spain. Whilst it appeared afterwards that some people hated the albergue, I thought it was rather good. The church that housed it was entirely surrounded by a high wall and the accommodation was built as a lean-to against the inside of the wall. Someone else said it was rather like those old swimming pools where the changing cubicles lined each side of the pool. Each cubicle had two beds in it and a pair of doors at the front on to a covered verandah which ran all the way round. However, inside, the dividing wall didn’t go up to the roof so you were sort of private but sort of not. Anyway, I thought it was okay and the sun was out and the showers were hot, so for me it was fine.
The French lot have recommended the restaurant Apostal so we went back into town to check it out and get some loo paper. Restaurant Apostal is firmly shut and it takes us ages to find a shop. When we get back Ramon and Geraldo have finally got in, once again not because they have been struggling but because they have stopped for a large lunch in a very good place on the way in which we had a sandwich. On the route in the country most, but not all, bars will knock you up a bocadilla which is usually as close as you are going to get to anything for lunch. It almost always consists of a section of baguette up to a foot long sliced in half and you can have one kind of ham in it or one kind of cheese which seems to be supplied to the entire Camino. The ham is a sort of dry cured chewy stuff and actually the cheese seems pretty similar and comes complete with rind. Oh, you can also have a tortilla bocadillo. Tortilla is Spanish omelette. In its simplest form it is just a potato omelette typically about an inch thick. So a tortilla bocadillo is a pretty heavy duty affair and comes, like all bocadillos, with no sophistication like butter or salad. In fact having a cheese one with tomato as well improves it a lot. Sometimes you can get tortilla francaise which is half a baguette with a freshly made plain omelette in it which is really quite nice. If we have lunch at all, a bocadillo between us is quite enough. I know the Spanish get a bit touchy if anyone suggests that you do not go to Spain for a gastronomic treat, especially if it’s criticism from Brits who everyone knows have absolutely no idea what good food is, but after paying to be fed every day for over a month I can count the individual items, never mind whole meals, that I remember with any real pleasure, on the fingers of one hand. Don’t get me wrong. I am not complaining, I am more than happy to be fed perfectly good food at very reasonable prices.
And in any case Cacabelos turns out to be one of the ones I can remember. Since Ramon and Geraldo got in late and we reckon we know the only caff in town that’s any good, we volunteer that we can tell them where it is or they can come with us to eat and they opt for the latter. On our way, the restaurant Apostal has mysteriously come to life again so we go there. It is a culinary delight. I don’t care what anyone else had but I had a rich fish soup with an endless supply of warm crusty bread, followed by a large platter of half a dozen langoustine beautifully seared on a charcoal grill. I am sure the service is helped by the fact that Ramon is Spanish speaking, and I ask him about the difference between Spanish and Mexican Spanish. I am not sure that I explained the concept of dialect very well but he did say that most people would instantly recognise Mexican Spanish because it is much more gentle and polite in its phraseology and structure. If I understood him he was saying that they would say ‘please may I have’ or ‘would you be kind enough to’ whereas the Spanish equivalent would be’ I want’ ‘give me’ and ‘get me’.
I am not sure why Ramon was so deferential towards Geraldo. Perhaps it was something that Geraoldo enjoyed and so wanted everyone to be a bit intimidated by his slightly overworked mysteriousness. Perhaps because she was, Claire was taking the wine fairly seriously and had obviously decided to pursue his credentials as a priest, and at the same time complain that the Camino so far had not produced one flicker of a spiritual experience for her, despite the number of churches she had been in. This was whilst demonstrating a level of cynical disbelief that would have precluded her from recognising one if it had leapt out from behind every stone on the way. But Claire and a bit too much wine are a belligerent combination and I had already decided to keep my head down and concentrate on langoustine.
It turned out that Geraldo wasn’t a real priest with a parish as such, in that sense, and didn’t exactly have a bishop to whom he was responsible. In fact he was more a sort of wandering Dominican and his parish was either Texas or America, I forget which. Ramon’s English was much better than Geraldo’s and he was doing his best to fend off Claire’s persistence and for the first time since we had met was beginning to get slightly flustered, explaining how much in demand Geraldo was and then making the fatal error of announcing that Geraldo would give a demonstration of his powers. Without touching it he would change the taste of the wine. Geraldo explained that all of us and, apparently, the house red had an aura or magnetic field that he was able to influence, and Ramon said that in Texas Geraldo was often called in to rescue batches of wine that had gone a bit wrong and that there were some wine makers who wouldn’t dream of even bottling a batch of wine before Geraldo had stared at it for a bit. I tried to preoccupy myself with my langoustine but it was hopeless and I was duly obliged to taste my wine and then watch Geraldo glare at it menacingly for a couple of minutes and quiver a bit before I had to taste it again. Of Course, I couldn’t tell any difference but it probably would have had to taste of bleach or tonic water for me to remember the difference anyway. However, I had no desire to humiliate a deluded but harmless old man so I burbled something conciliatory and hoped it would all go away. I was very grateful that I had already told them that we would not be sharing a taxi for the back packs the next day because we would not be walking far and would probably be staying the night in Villafranca. This wasn’t entirely true because I wasn’t sure what we were going to do, but I had a feeling that we needed to be free. When we got back to the albergue Ramon insisted that we come along to their room and he got out the dowsing rods. At this point I very nearly announced ‘Game over’ and marched Claire back to bed. And then I thought no, she got herself into this – she can dig her own way out, but please Geraldo, don’t try it on me because I am going to have to be rude and I would rather avoid it. He knows that Claire is the one to go for, so he waves the rods up and down her, and surprisingly announces that she suffers from a number of severe blockages. He then stands very close to her and stares at her for what seems like ages, while Claire sways gently in front of him, not because she is under his spiritual influence but because she’s pissed.
My problem with the whole procedure is simple but fairly fundamental. Somewhere recently I have read one of those little wisdomettes that people are so fond of, and which I usually find irritating. It is roughly along the lines that only a fool insists on trying to find a rational explanation for something that is spiritual. And, don’t try to attach mystical or spiritual meanings to things that are perfectly rational. In the old days this would have meant the weather, plagues, comets and volcanoes.
These days it includes magnetic auras and dowsing. There seems to be little argument about the existence of magnetic type auras round people and things, including house red but that we don’t seem to know much about them. After Geraldo’s ministrations, a further dowsing not surprisingly reveals Claire to be clear of blockages. When we get back to our little cubicle, Claire pronounces the whole thing to be complete bollocks, gives me a kiss and goes to sleep.
The following morning we set off for Villafranca which involves about three hours of hard steady climb, largely beside the main road. The section from here to O’Cebriero mainly follows the motorway up a steep valley and for quite long sections the route is either right beside the motorway or actually underneath it. We have decided to give this bit a miss and get a taxi. It is also the day on which we pass out of Leon and Castille and into Galicia, the last province of our journey. O’Cebriero is perched on the top of a hill and is another good example of somewhere that would have crumbled away some centuries ago had it not been for the Camino. It is also the parish of the man who, in the 1930s did so much to restore the integrity of the way and to make sure it was properly marked and maintained. The bar, restaurant and most of the accommodation are still run by his family.
Galicia is gallic, in case you hadn’t noticed, and therefore shares some kind of history with Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and Scotland in a way that must be absolutely riveting to some people. When we arrive, the awful nic-nac shop selling Camino ephemera is playing bag pipe music as a vigorous defence of its gallicness, which you wouldn’t have dreamed of attacking if they didn’t keep mentioning it. It reminds me of Wales for the same reason and like Wales, has its own language, so everything is printed twice. The difference here is that I don’t understand either of them.
Camino nic-nac shops become more and more common the closer we get to Santiago and demonstrate the simple rule that the number of iconic camino nic-nacs you buy is probably in inverse ratio to the amount of actual walking you propose doing. I do realise that this is a bit rich from someone who has just got out of the taxi round the corner, but I am not averse to a bit of hypocrisy now and then.
This is just a little hilltop settlement and so there is only one place to eat and relatively few tables so we are all there and we just fill the available space. I can’t remember who we are sharing a table with except that Claire’s Spanish is the best we’ve got. The boss arrives with no menu and does the classic of rattling off a list of things to choose from and is obviously cross that we don’t understand most of them, and we all have to get Claire to help. This is not a good beginning and when he arrives with various utensils and some wine and water they are all plonked on the table with aggressive disdain. I pick up almost everything he has just put down and ostentatiously move it somewhere else, just for the hell of it, slamming each thing down as noisily as I dare. Nevertheless, the rest of the meal becomes a very jolly affair with extra wine and bread and chips and everything, and much exchange of bonhomie in respective languages which is just as well otherwise I might have finished up impaled on a gallic pilgrim’s walking pole from the nic-nac shop and looking a bit like a large lollipop.
The next day’s walk is surprisingly gentle considering the hills we are going over and we seem to have views in all directions all the time. The albergue at Triacastella offers us a very reasonable double room with a bath which makes it even better than a hotel, because it has also got washing machines and dryers and outside lines and a little garden to sit in. We sat about with a young German couple in the sun while the washing did and then I think we had a drink with them and another young couple called Jen and Brian, she from Australia and he from Ireland, all of whom became part of a tighter, closer weave as we begin to get closer to Santiago. The albergue offers to take a bag to Sarria for 5 euros and since this leg is over 25 km it’s too good an offer to miss.
The book offers us a choice of route the next day and we opt for the one that is 7 km longer but it says is less arduous. The bonus is the sudden sight, nestling in a valley, of the huge Benedictine monastery which completely dominates the tiny village, but the route is a lot hillier than the book suggests, and I have definitely had enough by the time we arrive at the Camino Real bar, which is where our pack has been dropped off, to find it hasn’t. The sullen girl, who didn’t want to be working there anyway, is not even vaguely interested in the whereabouts of our stuff. However, the sole customer takes pity on us, rings the café in Triacastella for us and they tell him that it is up the road at a different bar because the Camino Real was closed when they came to drop it off. He kindly takes us there, and there it is – profuse thanks – general relief – problem solved.
Sarria is bigger than we thought and involves quite a lot of steps up to the old centre. We realise how much fitter we must now be when we remember how we were with one kerb in Zubiri. Had we been faced with these steps then I think we would have just sat at the bottom and had a little cry. Once again the albergue is able to offer us a room for two but the loos are across the passage and the showers upstairs. Of course, had we been doing this in July or August, these rooms would have gone long before we slow coaches arrived and I have heard that some people do leave early and push themselves to the next stop just to get the best places, which I think is a shame, so it is a big advantage to be travelling at the tail end of the season and we are lucky to be able to have chosen our time.
Galicia is by far the most lush and green part of the way and is strung like a necklace with small settlements and farms, many of which are run with little or no machinery. Cattle are winter bedded on hand cut bracken and winter fodder cut with a scythe and stuffed into rude lean-to barns. It really does seem that little has changed for hundreds of years.
It was while we were happily strolling down a wooded and sun-dappled path past one of these farms that we were ambushed. Well, not exactly ambushed, but this little old lady dressed from head to toe in black with a pinny on leapt out – well she didn’t exactly leap out, but she had definitely been hiding round the corner, well hanging around anyway, and insisted that we have these pancakes. We carefully took one each, on which she sprinkled sugar, ate them, thanked her very much and were about to leave when she shook her pinny a bit and we realised from the coin chinking noise that we were supposed to give her money. Well, we’d eaten them by then and didn’t have a lot of choice so we gave her 2 euros, a cheery wave, and resolved we wouldn’t be caught that easily again. In the evening, over drinks, it seems that she managed to ambush all of us. After she finished for the day, I expect she got in her BMW and went home.
When we set off the next morning from Sarria it was still dark and we very nearly went the wrong way. Outside town we met an Italian group we knew by sight coming the other way who must have left town by another route. I had a hard job persuading them that we were right and then hoped I was since we had nearly gone wrong ourselves. At the bottom of the hill was a sign. It was a semi abstract multicoloured mouse-like figure on a bicycle and was the Galicia department of culture and tourism’s equivalent of the Leon and Castille Disney rat, and their iconic representation of the fun thing the Camino was. The Italians had actually seen it but assumed it was something to do with a route for cyclists and ignored it. I had already seen it, since we had now been in Galicia for a few days and so had vented my spleen on its inane and inappropriate stupidity and vowed to contact them as well as Leon about their rat when we got home.
It added insult to injury to put this babyish graphic representation of a Mickey Mouse pilgrim on a bicycle. Despite the fact that Claire’s nephew, Jack, was one of the people responsible for introducing us to the Camino and had done it by bike himself, I have to confess that I feel little ambiguity in my attitude to bikes. I am quite happy for people to cycle to Santiago if that’s what they want to do but I don’t want them doing it on any of the bits I am walking on. There are sections where the Camino is quiet so I suppose you can’t complain about that. And there are parts where it is designed to be both a walking and cycle path , and if they had bells, they would be less of a menace.
Of course, there is no reason why you shouldn’t do it on a bike, but the experience must be quite different. Most of the cyclists I spoke to seemed to want to do between 70 and 100 km a day which means they can do it in less than 10 days.
They can’t weave the relationships that we do with each other, because there isn’t the time and they are excluded by us because we only see any of them once. And that’s quite apart from all the silly clothes they seem to have to wear.
The route from Sarria to Portomarin is again on woodland paths or deserted small roads and passing through countless small hamlets and farms. There are relatively few stops for coffee but at those there are, we notice the sudden appearance of odd people we haven’t seen before who seem to look just a bit too clean and shiny. By the time we get to Portomarin I realise why.
When you get to Santiago you go to the Cathedral Pilgrim’s office with your credencia and they stamp it with the Cathedral stamp to say you have arrived. Provided you qualify as a bona fide pilgrim you will be issued with your Compostela, a certificate of completion of the Camino. I have already decided that if I manage to get to Santiago I am not sure I actually need a certificate signed by the Pope’s local office in Santiago. The fact that I know I have managed it will probably be enough for me. Anyway, it turns out that in order to qualify for your Compostela, you actually have to walk only the last 100 km, which means starting somewhere between Sarria and Portomarin. I have been aware of this but only now that I see the arrival of the first members of the 100k brigade does this huge feeling of resentment well up inside me. I am really quite surprised at the strength of my self-righteous indignation which practically ignites in Portomarin.
I have brought a pair of shorts but only one pair of trousers, and when we sit down for coffee in the square at Portomarin, they split over one knee – having worn out from the inside – especially uphill – something I have never done before and don’t intend doing again. As luck would have it there was an outdoor sports shop 50 yards down the road so in about 10 minutes we were back with me in a new pair. And just in time. Into the square comes a man with a flag followed by about 50 hobbits – at a second glance they were scouts, no, scouts and brownies because they were both sexes and covered in badges. And then they weren’t young – they were grown ups covered in badges and I mean covered. By now they were milling round the flag in front of the church and I realised why I had mistaken them for scouts. Thinking they were hobbits was just the initial shock and surprise. They had hats that were covered with badges and shorts and packs and jackets all covered in badges and they had wooden walking poles and they were covered in badges. And then they disappeared.
Afterwards Jen and Brian told us that they had all piled into the Camino nick nack shop to buy a badge and get their credencia stamped and then got back on the bus and disappeared. Within a day or so they had become the Camino joke. By the time we got to Santiago everybody had seen them trouping in and out of a shop or a bar or a church like lemmings, but no-one had seen any of them actually walking. We saw them again in Santiago, marching down the street and I had an almost overwhelming desire to snitch on them if they had dared go into the office and suggested they were entitled to a certificate.
In fact we weren’t swamped by hordes of the 100 k brigade so my self righteous indignation was pretty short lived, but I understand it is a problem at other times of the year and apparently those of us who have come a long way do often feel very resentful, and overpowered by the large number of latecomers. However, the fact that we were now in the last stages and were likely to actually get to Santiago was not without problems itself. Someone had told us earlier that the first 700 km were the easy part and in a way they were right. When you begin it is so hard that you find it difficult to believe that you will be able to keep going – after a couple of weeks you realise that you can and there is no doubt that you begin to move into a kind of rhythm. That doesn’t make it easy – you are still knackered at the end of each day, but even that is a kind of rhythm because you know you will have recovered sufficiently to do it again the next day.
At the end of this day we will have covered over 25 km of quite hard walking on a variety of surfaces without really thinking about it, and then we will have about 40 miles to go, and then it’s going to stop – and then what?
And is arriving in Santiago going to be an orgasmic climax? Or is it going to be awful and is Santiago going to be like Lourdes and full of plastic virgins and St. James’ that light up and play Amazing Grace if you go anywhere near them? Claire doesn’t care whether we go to Santiago or not because she just wants to keep walking.
So there’s us and the French and the Norwegians with a car and a formula I don’t get, and the two Swiss women, and Brian and Jen, and the nice East Germans being kept together and looked after by Olga the dog, and a batty Australian with orange hair, and a busload of mad German badge collectors, all weaving our way in an ever tightening plait towards a church in Santiago for reasons I suspect most of us don’t fully understand – and then it’s going to stop.
After a pleasant but long hard climb through the woods we came out on to the road, and catch up with a bunch of teenagers who don’t want to be doing this. They are part of a closely supervised group. They might be delinquents, they might just be a school class or they might be a special learning group, but whoever they are, they so do not want to be in the middle of nowhere, divested of phones or i-pods if they had them and be forced to walk. A couple have acquired sticks with which they are hitting anything that can be hit and are prodding off the little piles of pebbles that pilgrims insist on putting on any horizontal surface. I am too far away to yell at them to stop doing it, but if I had been close enough they probably would have stopped because they would have known exactly what I was saying even though they didn’t understand and even though they are probably all bigger than me in a lumpy sort of way, but are still intimidated by the authority of age. As we passed them it started to rain for only the second time since we began. We put our new improved ponchos on and by the time we got to the next coffee it had stopped.
The following day is another 26 km and fairly hilly but we arrive in the early evening in one piece. The albergue seems pretty basic and also pretty full and whilst it turns out to have a good bar and evening meal the albergue itself is unattended so we sign ourselves in and put a donation in the box. There is no hot water and the loos are outside. Several people turn up and decide to go on because the albergue is all on its own about 3 km out of the next town which is Arguja. We stay put. It is now quite chilly in the evenings and the dormitories are heated which is good. They also have a slightly unusual bunk arrangement. Bunks are usually a few feet apart, which just about gives you room, provided that you and your neighbour don’t want to get dressed or undressed at the same time. These ones are bolted together in lumps of four. When we arrive there are very few spare and the French couple have taken the top and bottom bunks of the four by the wall, but the other two are free so we have those. It’s only when it comes to going to bed that it dawns on Claire that she is now virtually in a twin bed with this French bloke she hardly knows. The other thing is that there are no windows in the dorm, just shutters which are, as usual, tight shut. When the lights go out it is completely, absolutely, totally pitch black. When Claire comes back from going for a pee the only way she knows that she is getting back into bed next to a French bloke is that she has hung the sleeping bag covers on the end of the bed and can feel them when she gets back.
The following day should be relatively easy and will be our last night before Santiago. In fact we don’t get there until late in the afternoon because we have dawdled and stopped often. We have decided that we are not going to stay at the albergue, so when we come to a yellow arrow signed albergue and another one straight on, we keep going. We walk for another half hour before we realise that we have now skirted the town and are leaving it behind us. For the only time on the entire journey does the Camino virtually bypass the town instead of going through it. We go back, can’t find the hotel and check into the albergue. It is pretty full but Olga the dog and her lot are there and so are the French. We have no idea who all the others are but they have presumably all turned up for the final assault on Santiago.
We stamp ourselves in and put a donation in the box. I can’t remember where it was, but only a few days ago, when a man with his daughter who had only just started, asked us if all the albergues were free. We explained that some were based on donations but most had a very reasonable fixed charge. He clearly regarded those with a box for donations as free.
Well this is it then – we eat with the French couple and go back to the albergue. We set out the next morning with mixed feelings and in the dark. Fortunately, we know where we are going because it is quite hard to see the signs. One of the other things that Galicia has managed to get completely wrong about the Camino is the milestones to Santiago, but in collusion with Leon and Castille. For about the last 180 km the Camino milestones have carried the kilometres to Santiago cast into each one and sometimes every half kilometre. I find them irritating which means Claire delights in making sure that I don’t miss any of them, by telling me the latest countdown. When we move out of Leon and Castille, Galicia takes over. As we get closer to Santiago it becomes more and more obvious that they aren’t accurate and by the time we are about 20 km away realise that they are about 4 km short. I guess that the idiots in the department of culture and tourism, who have probably all got degrees in politics and hospitality, have taken the measurement from the start of what is now the modern city of Santiago. If this is true, they have demonstrated with stunning clarity that they have no idea whatsoever what the Camino is about, which is of course to the church itself, which is now the Cathedral and without which Santiago would not exist in name or probably at all. If it is true it is a demonstration of crass ignorance that almost beggars belief. In any case at around 13 km the milestones mysteriously disappear altogether.
A few kilometres outside Santiago is MountGozo on which there is a large lumpy and rather ostentatious pilgrim monument and an albergue with apparently 800 beds for those who wish to make the ritual rather than the real pilgrimage. We walk past it and give a cheery wave to Olga the dog who is allowing her lot a little rest. It is now early afternoon and the route into Santiago is fairly depressing. Almost as soon as we enter the City we have problems following the signs and they become more and more difficult to find as we thread our way into what I think is an increasingly horrible city.
We are pretty close by the time we are completely lost and have to be told where the cathedral is. And, by now I am deeply angry. I have walked 500 effing miles to be here, for the whole of which I have been unerringly guided, fed, housed, looked after, cared for, encouraged and sustained by hundreds of people, many of whom were not even being paid to do it, and now Santiago can’t even be arsed to give me decent signs to the Cathedral. I just want to leave. We go to the pilgrim office and get our credencia stamped with the Santiago Cathedral stamp and the date we arrive. We are also each given our Compostela certificate which is a cheaply printed on a rather sad bit of paper with our name and a date on it and I am instantly not sure I even want it. We go to a café and have a drink, and Claire makes me stay put while she goes off and organises somewhere to stay which is probably just as well because I would have left straight away.
The hotel Claire has organised is over a bar and restaurant and in a narrow street within 100 yards of the Cathedral which is crammed with places to eat and nick nack shops. I don’t actually remember calming down and it makes me just as angry now, and I wasn’t sulking; I was just angry. And it wasn’t just me. When the girl in the pilgrim office was filling in my forms, I told her I thought the signs were awful into Santiago and she said ‘yes everyone says that’ and that I should go and tell the office up the road which was run by the Galicia department of culture and tourism. And so I mentioned the Mickey Mouse on a bike – “I know”she says, isn’t it horrible. You should complain about that too’.
Anyway, we wandered along to the Cathedral and sat quietly. We had arrived while a lucky group were obviously being given a lecture on the organ, so we were treated to demonstration snatches of playing that you would normally only hear at a recital. I suddenly noticed Yvonne, the Aussie we had met just outside Pamplona when she first learned that she was going to have to share dorms with men. Seeing her was not quite as much of a surprise to us as it was to her because a few days before at Ribadiso, when we had signed ourselves in, Claire had checked back to find out if anyone we knew had come through and Yvonne had, about four days before. Nevertheless we were disproportionately pleased to see each other – I think for a number of reasons – firstly for the utterly unselfish pleasure one felt about the others who had made it and also because this was not just someone you knew that you hadn’t seen for a bit –this was someone who had walked in exactly the same steps as you and climbed all the same hills and so you didn’t need to ask what they had been doing since you last saw them. We had coffee and a chat. After she left I did go to the Galicia department of culture and tourism but they didn’t speak my language and I wasn’t able to get cross in either of theirs so I found a piece of paper with their address on it and left.
Claire had decided several things without a lot of help from me. Firstly we were going to go to the pilgrim mass at noon the next day. Secondly, she wanted to go home by train, partly because flying was all a bit fast but mainly because she likes trains. We decided to go by train to Santander and get a ferry to Plymouth. We wandered down to the station via an internet café and booked the ferry and the train. Back in the old city we saw the French couple we had slept with, the Swiss women who we took to the pilgrim office so they could sign in, and Olga who was looking for somewhere to stay that would take people as well.
By the time we saw Jen and Brian it was time for a drink and tapas. I am sure that those of you who know Spain are surprised that I haven’t mentioned tapas before, since they are food, and can be a gastronomic delight, and you can get them before the restaurants open in the evening.
In fact the Japanese mice had discovered them in Pamplona and vowed that they were going to eat nothing else while they were in Spain. None of us knew at the time that it probably wasn’t going to be possible. The simple answer is that tapas are probably a city thing. They do exist in the country but tend to be about as sophisticated as a bocadillo – a lump of sausage perched on the top of a small circle of yesterday’s bread, or a sardine, or possibly a slice of tortilla. They reminded me of English pubs forty years ago which, under glass domes, might offer a grey pork pie or a bread roll with a slab of cheese and half an onion prodded into it – or doughnuts that looked as if they would survive being fired from a cannon. Even in places big enough to have decent tapas, the problem is not over for us foreigners. When Claire was doing her College Spanish she went over to Malaga for a week and stayed with Isabella to practise her Spanish. Since it transpired that Isabella spoke no English at all it was a hard week for Claire, but brilliant for tapas and Isabella knew exactly where to go to get the best ones and knew what they all were. We knew none of these things. Firstly you had to be in a town big enough to have something better than pork pie tapas. Then you had to have the balls to walk in and have a look at them, decide they didn’t look very good and walk out, which Claire could do but I couldn’t. And after all that, it was essential to get a seat at the bar because you needed to point at what you wanted since there was no way you were going to identify the exact one you wanted from the list on the table. So you can see that a large number of propitious things had to be in conjunction before we could enjoy some of the best tastes of the whole journey. One of these rare occasions was that evening in Santiago with Jen and Brian, which was a very lovely event altogether.
The following morning was profoundly odd. We weren’t walking – not because we didn’t want to, or because we were ill, or tired, or lazy, but because there was nowhere to walk to – well there was because we could have just gone for a walk, but as I heard myself thinking ‘what would be the point of that’!
We wandered up to the large square in front of the Cathedral to see who was there and John the Foot was there. He was so pleased to see us that he would take us to lunch he said, but we would have to go now because it was free and we needed to queue.
Okay, there are some quirky things about arriving in Santiago which I haven’t told you about, and had it not been for John the Foot you might never have known about them.
When you arrive at the Cathedral there are a number of traditional pilgrim rituals to perform. At the west door you place your hand on the llth century carving of the tree of Jose and then you go to the other side of the entrance and knock your head on the statue of Santo dos croques who is the head banging saint – there is no point in asking me because I don’t know alright – except that head banging is a classic symptom of being a lunatic – or nutter. Inside the Cathedral and above the high alter is a carving of St. James and you can get round the back of the altar and up the steps where you can give him a hug and tell him why you came. Down the steps the other side and under the altar itself in the reliquary chapel is the casket containing the remains of the body of St. James himself. This as you will remember from the beginning of the story was the body discovered by a peasant shepherd in a field in the 9th century and is where you may feel that the factual evidence for this being actual remains of someone who was buried there not long after his death in AD41 begins to unravel a bit. However, that is not the point and rather like our experience with Ramon and Geraldo, it is about as fruitless and pointless to try to prove that it is the body of James as it is to point out that it probably isn’t. Since our motive for walking this journey had, from the very beginning come under the heading of ‘other’, we did not manage these rituals.
John the Foot’s offer of a free lunch has an altogether more rational explanation. At the end of the 15th century a rather grand pilgrim hostel was established on the northern side of the large square in front of the Cathedral. I don’t know when, but presumably relatively recently, it was converted into a very posh hotel. One of the conditions that went with its conversion was that it should provide ten pilgrims with three meals a day.
It was for one of these meals that John was about to go off and queue at about 11.30 in the morning. We declined his suggestion because we were going to the mass, but he was surprised that we weren’t interested anyway and proudly announced that he had already had three meals and this would be his fourth so he had to go because he needed to be near the front of the queue. Here was a man who had flown from South Africa specially – had clomped his way down the Camino with a damaged foot and blistered hands from his stupid sticks, and was now prepared to stand in line for hours in order to be given a few euros worth of free food – he really is an extraordinary bloke.
I am not exactly sure why we were going to the pilgrim mass but it is so full we have to stand and lean against a pillar. Perhaps Claire is hoping for a last minute spiritual revelation. In fact I know the whole journey has been a much bigger emotional experience for Claire than she expected but perhaps because of the lack of blinding light and visions of angels and celestial music it hasn’t had the same conscious impact. Of course, we don’t understand a word of the service but those of us who have come a long way do get a mention, not by name but by nation. The office obviously sends over the figures each day of who came in the day before. In fact apart from the day trippers there were probably only a couple of dozen of us who trickled in that day, and of those not more than half a dozen who had come the whole way. At the point at which people were queuing up to take communion I told Claire it was all over bar the shouting and we left, thereby missing the highlight of the service and the only thing that most people are apparently likely to know about the Cathedral and Santiago. The giant incense burner. This is suspended above the nave and used to be used only on special occasions, but apparently now brought into action every day and swung from side to side across the nave. The Irish group who we said goodbye to in Leon and who had already done the end section said on no account should we miss this because it was pure circus and now we have done.
After lunch I had a little rest and Claire found Olga and her friends over-indulging in lobster, and agreed that later we would meet them for a beer and tapas. And so we did.
The following morning we ambled down to the station. It was as if there was only one train out of Santiago and everyone was on it. And there on the platform was Sister Maria, the 85 year old Disney nun from Provence. Well, God smiles on the just and she deserved it. Olga was hiding in a small carrier bag in order to avoid having to buy an adult ticket and she was still quietly sitting in it when we got off that afternoon.
By 4 o’clock we had passed through Ponferrada, where we had seen the women roasting peppers, Astorga where Claire had been so ill, El Burgo Ranero, where we had made an illegal dash across that very railway track , Carrion where Claire had a sniffly nose and Fromista where we had said goodbye to the Norwegian girls nearly 3 weeks before. It was all a bit eerie.
At Palencia we waved goodbye to everyone and got off. The train to Santander didn’t go until the morning and for the first time for ages we were on our own. Palencia wasn’t on the Camino, so as far as Palencia was concerned, instead of being instantly recognisable as pilgrims, we were just two rather odd old people with back packs who should have been at home watching the Spanish equivalent of Eastenders or countdown. And there were no comfy little yellow arrows to tell us where to go either. And there was absolutely no chance of us bumping into anyone we knew. The result was that for the first time Claire and I got really pissy with each other about how to find a hotel, but after a bit of grumpy walking about not finding anything we found a good place, cheap and close to the station.
The ferry left at 4.00 the next day and the train got into Santander at about lunchtime. We had no idea where the train came in or where the ferry left from. As soon as we got off the train we went to the information desk to find out how far it was to the ferry and whether there was a bus service from the station. She looked at us slightly oddly and pointed behind us. Across the car park and beyond a grassy square and less than a hundred yards away was the unmistakable slabby side of a Brittany Ferry. Well, how were we to know.
I am not even going to begin to describe to you the full horror of the floating gin palace that Brittany Ferries thinks makes a mini-cruise from Plymouth to Santander and back again with a couple of hours in which to buy cigarettes and booze and sample the delights of Santander a fun thing to do. Alright, I am a miserable git, but I feel I am trapped inside a giant pinball machine with music, chips and gravy, and by half past eight I have retired to bed and gone into suspended animation until it is all over. Whilst I am relieved to get off the ferry the next morning, I am irritated and ashamed to find that there is no public transport at all from the ferry port so we walk at least a couple of miles to the bus station to find that there is no bus to Bridgwater, or even Taunton until 7 o’clock that evening. Well, yes, there is a bus to Exeter and then there might be buses from there to Taunton or Bridgwater but they wouldn’t know because it’s outside their area. I flounce out and we get a bus to the railway station, who charge us twice as much to spend a couple of hours on an English train as Spain had charged us to sit on theirs for a day and a half. We get a taxi to drop us off on the main road along the Poldens, and in the soft afternoon sun that has shone on our entire journey, we walk the two or three miles home.
I don’t know what we are going to do tomorrow. We could always go for a walk I suppose – but as I remember thinking in Santiago, what would be the point of that?
© Robin Howell November 2007
Edited September 2021