Walking without a donkey 26: Finnisterre

Finnisterre / Fistera (by bus) / Santiago de Compostella 24 – 28.11.17

The bus from Santiago de Compostella to Fisterra in the O Coruña province of Galicia, Spain, takes 3+ hours. We drove through torrential rain, along a really beautiful coast which was often shrouded in mist, arriving in the dull damp, with rucksacks and immediately wet shoes. Happily, the bus stops in the centre of the town and the accommodation was only a short walk away.

Oh it was dreadful! Booking.com did not come up trumps, and, later, a complaint had to be made. It was surely the dirtiest kitchen and coldest set of rooms imaginable, without wifi. The only thing going for it was the hot baths.

But look what happened! The next day the sun was shining, and Spain was it’s usual, stunning self.

The final part of the long ‘chemin’, the Camino path, is to the fin de la terre that gives the area it’s name, the ‘end of the earth’. It’s a slow hour’s 3kms wander, uphill out of the town, and past the final milestone.

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The road passes a church.

Parroquial de Santa Maria da Vila de Finsterra

There are glorious views to gawp at!

Here’s the last of the grand pilgrim statues.

There is a small group of buildings at the point – a hotel, gift shop and the lighthouse.

And, oh, there was the Atlantic Ocean, and it was a wonderful sight to behold.

I sat and contemplated the expanse of water.

Taking photos of more walking-related statues.

While I sat, two men arrived. They had obviously walked the last part of the Camino de Francés, and they undressed and danced and whooped with joy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went on to burn their boots ceremoniously, as many do. Too wasteful for me!

On the way back down, there were still nasturtiums even though it was the end of November!

And other vibrantly coloured flowers growing by the roadside.

The harbour is full of fishing and pleasure boats, and there’s lots to see at all times of the year, even when it is out of season.

There are several supermarkets, one gift shop, a post office and banks, but it’s a sparse town with an air of bewilderment at the wacky backpackers pouring in and out every day. There are also dogs just running around the streets, with cars swerving dangerously to avoid them.

The view from the balcony of accommodation #2 was gorgeous. I enjoyed my sunset sangria and snacks of mussels in spicy sauce ‘en escabeche’.  These were slow, peaceful days after the long trek, spent mostly in the open air because it’s a habit that is hard to break. We breakfasted and supped on the terrace, grand meals prepared in the spotless self-catering kitchen. It was, however, slightly less private, what with the loudly copulating couple in the room above.

It is almost obligatory to beach comb in Finnisterre,  reputedly the home of the coquille Saint Jaques shells. At that time of year the strand is totally deserted, almost rivalling our Scottish ones, but that suited the end-of-the-road mood. It was good paddling weather!

Reminds me of Claigan Coral beach on Skye, Scotland
The only complete shell found that day, and one half of a matching pair

Being away from the city of Santiago, the cafés are cheaper, with free wifi, cake and biscuits, and no-one takes any notice of how long you sit there, or if you simply pop in to use the toilet

I only bought the coffee, the rest was gratis.

On the 27th it was back to Santiago and getting to know the attractive wee streets and gift shops some more. There was a delicious final meal of paella, including my first taste of razor fish, and much happy on-street greetings of friends previously met along the way.

After several brandies,  I danced in a jazz bar with C. (Although I didn’t know her name then, she was someone I was to meet unexpectedly the next day, on the Via de la Plata (see later blog https://wordpress.com/post/shiatsutamsin.wordpress.com/687).

Europe was made on the pilgrim road to Compostella.

It was an early morning farewell to Alain, my walking companion of the previous weeks, on 28th, and afterwards I wandered around Santiago feeling somewhat lost (and hung over). Then, well, then of course, I set off walking again.

Thoreau, Gros writes, ‘… we store when walking vivid feelings and sunny memories for winter evenings’. From A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros

Walking without a donkey 26: Monte Gozo to Santiago de Compostella

23.11.16 Monte do Gozo to Santiago 4.7 – yes, readers, I got there!

On leaving Monto do Gozo, the roads lead by a sculptor’s garden and workshop: some whole and in tact, others eroded by the seasons and attractively aged.

And a little further on it was a relief to see that the corn had finally been collected in. I had walked through so many fields of maize during the past weeks, and seen it looking daily more bedraggled and sorry for itself. I wondered if it was all going to waste, one of those cash crops which farmers sow for the subsidies. So I was glad to glimpse the shining yellow kernels hanging up for winter storeage.

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Then we arrived! On the roundabout at the edge of town is this sign, inexplicably decorated at that time with the French flag, but appropriate seeing as I had walked beside a Frenchman and spoken that tongue for well over a month.

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It was not far now to the centre of Santiago de Compostella, but somehow we got lost on the outskirts and so it took a while to find the Cathedral. Having both been there before, perhaps we did not really want to arrive and face the end. We trudged up steep streets and found the bus station (which was unnecessary!), and wound our way back down through the busy metropolis with very uncharacteristic bad temper.

Although I had never planned to get here, and the process was infinitely more satisfying than the end, there was some inevitable elation at standing in the atmospheric, grand square with a few fellow walkers, at this glorified place so many had striven to reach since the Middle Ages.

Mid morning, but the sun is low at the end of November, slanting over my head and throwing a shadow many times taller than me
Alain in front of the Cathedral which is covered in scaffolding

With my raggedy piece of paper, stamped at every hostal I had visited along the way, I went to the credentials office and got the final seal and certificate.

Then found the delightful lodgings (pre-booked).

And attended the Pilgrim’s Mass.

Before taking our seats, we queued to kiss the statue currently situated behind the altar. I was very hungry (a noon service), and it was cold in the cavernous interior. Like the outside, it was in the process of rennovation, and for some reason the enormous incense ball was not swung, so it was all less impressive than it might have been.

After a warming and celebratory meal, followed by a nap, there were streets to walk, shops to visit, familiar and first-met backpackers to greet. A lengthy but spacious re-visit of the Cathedral with its golden altar, and many side chapels, where worshippers chanted and prayed, seemed apt.


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What did I get out of walking the Camino Frances? Untold amounts of glorious things.

Physically, I was feeling so much stronger and leaner. I used to say that I only liked flat walks alongside rivers or canals, but now I could manage the climbs and rejoice in the views that my friends used to tell me about!

I reflected (so much wonderful time for reflection!), that the on-going walking forwards gave me an unexpected sense of achievement. It has always been hard for me to believe I have achieved much, hard to stop towards the end of a project, look back and be pleased with what has taken place. But here on the Camino, walking, the simple effort affords pleasure in achievement, of reaching the evening’s destination, of covering the kilometres, of managing the carrying and the impact.

‘When you set off for the day, and know that it will take so many hours to reach the next stage, there’s nothing left to do but walk, and follow the road.’

‘Serenity…a steady balance in the soul. Walking leads to it, quietly, gradually, through the very alternation of rest and movement. …Serenity comes from simply following the path’.

Pages 145, 146 ‘A Philosophy of Walking’, Frederic Gros

Walking without a donkey 25: O Pedrouzo to Monte Gozo

22.11.16 O Pedrouzo to Monte Gozo 15.4 km

Despite the previous night’s rain, it was beautiful in the morning misty light

Unfortunately my boots were still damp by morning, but this was a short stage because part way between O Pedrouzo and Santiago is Monte do Gozo. Monte do Gozo is a massive complex of pilgrim accommodation (1200 beds), built at the behest of the Pope, and Alain, my walking companion and I, wanted to see what all the fuss was about. On the way we stopped for a hot chocolate and Santiago Tart (delicious almond sweet) to warm the cockles. There was not much conversation as we neared the end of the long journey and reflected on that with sadness.

There is a tradition, amongst the Camino trapisers, where boots, clothes and other accoutrements which are no longer necessary, are ceremoniously draped around and arranged at a particular country dell. It didn’t attract me at all, indeed, it was all a bit of a mess. Plus, autumn was moving into winter now and a decidedly melancholy atmosphere was all around.

I have never seen such a place as Monte Gozo. It reminded me of a student campus or unimaginative caravan park, with its concrete masses in a gorgeous rural setting, and, as it was out of season, there was nothing but the wind blowing food wrappers around deserted walkways.

On top of a hill, there are views for contemplation, and somehow self-satisfied statues of walkers. So I turned my back on those arrested, oxidised striders, and sat in the warm sun in silence. It was starting to dawn on me that this wonderful Camino journey was nearly at its end.

I prefer to praise nature

The man who booked us in was very friendly and we were able to ask questions and find out about the place. Apparently it is full to heaving in the summer, although I still didn’t get a spiritual sense about what goes on there. There were one or two others in the hostel block and an adequate kitchen where we had our pack lunch. And there was blessed privacy for giving Shiatsu.

A thoughtful figure amongst the concrete
A desultory set of standing stones

Later, there were no cafes or bars open, so we walked into the village in the pitch black, under a starry night sky, and it was freezing. We searched, gave up, started again, and eventually found somewhere to eat the familiar traveller’s menu. I do not recommend visiting at this time of year, and was glad to leave the next morning to walk the final 5 kilometres into the city of Santiago de Compostella where St James’ remains are interred.

‘When I walk I soon become two. My body and me: a couple, an old story. Truly the soul is the body’s witness. An active, vigilant witness. It must follow the other’s rhythm, accompany its efforts: when you rest on the leg during steep ascents, when you feel its weight at the knee. You push on and the mind punctuates each step: ‘good, good, good’. The soul is the body’s pride. When I am walking, I accompany myself.’ p. 57

All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Walking without a donkey 24 – Palas de Rei to Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo

20.11.16 Palas de Rei to Ribadiso 25.8 km; 21.11.16 Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo 22.1 km

It’s all about living without knowing what will happen. Whatever it is, walk through it.

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Another pretty Roman bridge in Gallicia

Down came the rain and…. . Two hours of heavy downpour in the morning meant very few photos for the rest of the day. However, it was a lovely walk through dark, pine forests, and open lusciously, green countryside, with a great deal of sloshing in the boot department. Plus, dripping sleeves, managing temperature control at the same time as trying to stay dry – one way and another it was a very different sort of a day than I had been used to.

Unexpectedly I stopped for lunch with a  friend, and was rarely so pleased to see a pizzeria and drink a warming glass (or 2) of red. The patron was understanding and provided newspaper as I disrobed and slowly stopped shivering. This simple kindness was particularly appreciated.

My feet were actually cosy, even though it was impossible to dodge the puddles, but it was overall more tiring, and so I arrived at the albergue (crossing the ancient 6th century bridge to the other side of the Rio Iso) with weary legs, feet and soul, and in a narky mood. The door was open but no-one was at home, literally. I phoned the number, and the van I had seen leave as I arrived, returned with the hospitalier. There was some confusion as to which hostel, because he had one in town as well, but here I needed to stay.

Of course being so wet, meant that I cooled down quickly, and so I was very pleased to find that the room had efficient heating and a hot shower. There was a communal kitchen, sitting area, and the eternal noise of the TV of course; and here were the two young Canadian girls again. They really had to make conversation this time – we had been sharing dorms, meeting up and separating, re-connecting and overtaking with desultory Buen Camino‘s for several days now. In fact, we even ended up sharing some food, and the presence of other previously wet walkers conspired to improve the atmosphere a little. There’s nothing like moaning about the weather for effective bonding!

I had packed some of the lunch-time newspaper in the bottom of my rucksack, for stuffing my boots at the end of the day. That turned out to be a lucky break, because it had soaked up some of the water which might otherwise have been absorbed by my only change of garments. There was still a great deal of rearranging of sleeping bag, walking clothes, and other soggy items on radiators throughout the evening, but they were all wonderfully dry by morning.

Which is less than can be said for the landscape: what a storm! It rained wildly all night, with thunder and lightening, and I suffered nightmares, wakened time and again, once by my own screaming. Despite being ready to leave by 8.30am, it seemed sensible to wait and see if it might stop before venturing out. It didn’t.

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The best walking companion

What is the Camino de Saniago de Compostelle like? Often it’s just walking. With a moment when the sun comes out and everything shines. Or you turn a corner and there’s a simple, solid, ancient chapel, right there in the middle of nowhere.

‘During that continuous but automatic effort of the body, the mind is placed at one’s disposal. It is then that thoughts can arise, surface or take shape.’                                                                        p. 157

Now I walked beside woods of very unpopular eucalyptus trees with chestnuts dotted amongst them. It was a rather bizarre idea of the Spanish government to plant 1000’s of them for the pulp industry, and they have proved to stop other native species and natural ground cover from growing well.

Unpopular eucalyptus trees
Unpopular eucalyptus trees
Wet pathways reflecting the forest
Wet pathways reflecting the forest

There were no vultures visible these days (see earlier blogs), only robins (les rouges-gorges); those little gardeners’ friends, hopping very close by the side of the path, fluttering in and out of the wet bushes as if they were following my progress, keeping an eye on me. The rain stopped by midday, and there was an open bar serving hot chocolate, but I felt colder and my feet were like ice.

O Pedrouzo is a largeish town, quite modern in places, and I stayed at a new hostel that evening, Crucero de O Pedrouzo, for 10 euros – all glass frontage and underfloor heating. Delicious! There was a bank with cashpoint, a choice of small supermarkets, and a hard-to-find, but worth-it bakery.

Once again I met with immense kindness. This time it was a woman who welcomed us at the entrance, and she took herself off to get mountains of newspaper and stuffed my boots for me, not just once, but again later, when the first lot had done its job.

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Looks yummy, doesn’t it?

The open plan kitchen/sitting/dining area made for easy conversation, and immediate friendships were springing up at many tables as we ate. There was a young, cycling Korean, unusually mixing with other nationalities; 2 men speaking English and playing draughts together, despite the fact that neither had English as their native tongue; the familiar Canadian pair once again keeping to themselves; and a charming Japanese couple. By the end of the night, we were making hilarious conversation in many languages, and we all went to bed with smiles on our faces.

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All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Walking without a donkey – 23 Sarria to Portomarin to Palas de Rei

18.11.16 – 19.11.16 Sarria to Portomarin 22.4km; Portomarin to Palas de Rei 24.8km

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It’s easy to think that you must walk alone on the Camino, because your own pace is the one which allows you to remain comfortable and go as far as you want to each day. As it turns out, I discovered that it was not necessary. What a pleasure to find that two can walk in step with each other and both be comfortable together!

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The Roman bridge of Aspera

I witnessed pairs and triplets of friends who walked in time with each other for a while, and then separated, settling into their own individual rhythms.

I walked with 2 others, falling into step with first one, then the other. Sometimes I was alone with my thoughts, musings, or own quiet, at other times I sang with the other two, and we strode out together. This is how it worked: if one fell out of humour with the second, the third was there to allow the first to walk on alone and regain equilibrium, whilst keeping the second company, listening to their complaints and woes, and eventually enabling a new harmony to evolve.

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Fragrant chestnut forests, not like the enduring manure/chemical odours as I walked for kms through the rural villages and farmlands of Galicia

 

 

When walking with a companion there was the pleasure of peaceful silence. Then again of conversation, of sharing music, or of gossiping about the walkers ahead. There was the telling of secrets – when looking ahead at the path it can be more tempting than when face-to-face. From profound to prosaic – from comparing notes of last night’s snorers, to the exchanging of intimacies – away from home it’s surprising what you can share with a stranger.

The first sight of Portomarin
The first sight of Portomarin

And you can haul each other up the slopes or through puddles if one is feeling weaker than the other. In the case of Portomarin, it was another of the long flights of steps at the last minute, on entry to the town, and then down again as the first hostel was not ideal!

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Characteristic ‘horreos’ where grain is stored for the winter

On the subject of safety, I didn’t experience any bad feeling, only support and encouragement.  People cooked together, shared food and news, advice, of course, and their stories. I heard tell of articles stolen from one woman, but wonder if they had actually been lost, because in the 700 km I was unaware of any such (difficulty). Whilst I was very careful to carry my passport, phone and money with me at all times, others around me (who were much more experienced Camino walkers) were very lax, leaving things in other rooms, for example, when they had a shower, and everything was always there when they got back.

Despite the late year, December in north eastern Spain saw lush landscapes with copious wild flowers

Spain seemed to me to be very safe; bus drivers weren’t hidden behind perspex screens with signs warning ‘passengers who attack our staff will be prosecuted’, as in Scottish buses. Money to be used for change when buying tickets was out on the counter for anyone to steal, but no-one did.

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Romanesque church, Portomarin
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There were dogs absolutely everywhere, and, here, one had the sort of companion I did not!

Men and women shared dormitories and often there were unisex toilet facilities. I was several times on my own in empty buildings, save the male hospitalier, and I never felt in danger, although I have always taught myself to think of what might happen and to be safe!

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100kms to go!

On the other hand I did not walk alone after dusk through forests with wolves, but a woman I met in Santiago reported that she had; and I met several couples who had walked at night, which was not something I fancied. I can understand the attraction, especially in the summer, as it would be cooler, and light until late, with only short darks. Plus the quiet would be fantastic. And the stars, oh the stars are amazing when there’s very little light pollution! You can see layers and layers of them, a true depth to the night sky which you can see in the Scottish Highlands, but certainly not in London or most of Edinburgh.

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As a long-time allotment holder in Scotland, I was endlessly impressed by the ‘hueltas’, the vegetable gardens that bordered the roadsides in Spain

The next day I travelled to Palas de Rei. It was a journey of delightful countryside walking, coming across this beautiful, well-worn cross at the entrance to the Ligonde, a peregrinos’ cemetery.

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Wide open, inexplicably orange, pathways, all but deserted although the ghosts of the 1000’s of summer walkers were all around me.

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The good weather had to break occassionally!

That evening I did have one very small incident. I was sleeping in a dormitory for 6 and it was full. I needed a break, some of that peace and quiet, after tea, and so I headed out to the town, downhill, for a wander around the admittedly dark and deserted streets. Within a short time, however, a man spotted me from the opposite side of the road and he started to follow me, to talk to me uncomprehensibly, and I didn’t get a good feeling. I hot-footed it back to the security of the hostel, and a most relaxing time on my bunk listening to music with my friend.

The hostel was ultra-modern, and as nowhere else was open it was very full. The other pilrims were very friendly, and although we were not supposed to cook, we all did. But we were not allowed to make our own breakfast and so it had to be paid for – served from a hatch, and much less satisfactory than the usual fare.

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The next morning it was raining. Many of us waited before leaving, just in case it let up, especially as it had been threatened for days and, luckily, not materialised. But today it did, and oh, did we get wet!

Walking without a donkey 22: Liñares to Triacastela to Sarria

16.11.16 – 17.11.16 Liñares to Triacastela 18.2 km; Triacastela to Sarria 18.7km

Wonderful views from the top
The cold of the valley cleared in an hour, and there were spectacular views from the top

In my diary I noted that it was 190 km to Santiago de Compostella, and there was a heavy white frost that Wednesday leaving Liñares. That’s only one more week of this Camino – best not to anticipate the sadness. I was already ‘writing’ about today in my head as I made the first climb. I felt very happy.

It was soft in the morning light when I came up to the San Roque statue commemorating all the walkers who have passed this way through the ages.

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Pilgrim bronze statue,  at the top – Alto de San Roque – he’s holding onto his hat against the wind

‘for the walking body… is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’ p. 6

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Because of the height (1,270m) I can see the countryside I will be walking through in the future laid out in front of me.

Moving through Galicia, there are circular buildings of wood, or small grey stones with thatched rooves, for storing grain. So pretty – like miniature Kentish cottages!

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We walk through days of tremendous chestnut forests, which of course shed their leaves at this time of year so that my feet shush and shuffle through deep ditches as I walk. In As Pasantes, the locals believe that this tree is 800 years old.

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I realise I am walking without a watch now – I barely know the date never mind the time! It is the practice of regularity, of one foot following another, which seems to stop time, or suspend it. And the contemplation of the simple sights is enough, there is no need to check what hour it is.

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‘an abundance of beauty that can turn the soul over.’  p.6

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Castanea Sativa – sweet chestnut, a substantial, long-lived deciduous tree. It is a valuable cash crop in these parts.

It has been predominantly a downhill sort of a day, and a shorter one than usual. The hostel where I stay the night is on a slight slope, and I have my celebration beer at a table by the roadside next to the wet washing, hoping it will dry while the sun sinks.

‘After a whole day’s walking, the simple relaxation of taking the weight off your legs, satisfying your hunger simply, having a quiet drink and contemplating the declining daylight, the gentle fall of night’ (after Rimbaud).                                     p. 143

 

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It is early afternoon when I arrive at Triacastela

I take a walk around the town, admiring the church and, finding a sheltered corner to sunbathe in, I find some peace and quiet away from the other peregrinos.

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Iglesia Romanica de Santiago de Triacastela

 ‘outside is no longer a transition, but the element in which stability exists’ p. 32

It used to be that I went outside to go from home to work, or from work to the shop. Now the nights inside have become the transitions, different every evening, allowing me to get outside once more when it’s light.

8.30am Triacastela
8.30am Triacastela. The special 2016 Autumn moon is still strong at this hour

Today I am aware of the balmy air against my forearms as I climb steeply once again. I watch the butterflies everywhere. I smell the chemical fertiliser and muck. There are white campion flowers, chamomile, lots of types of wild mint, Lords and ladies. Layers, lakes of cloud, hanging above the valley but below the silhouettes of the mountains. There’s a heavy, white dew still lying at noon.

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and, in the distance, later in the afternoon too.

Luckily today there was no crisis as feared. Instead, you can see how the day unfolds in this time-line of photos:

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as the late year’s light is slow to reach the paths
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and, thankfully, the blue sky returns,
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the water sparkles between sparse banks,
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until the whole gentle vista can be seen laid out ahead
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still green and abundant in Galicia.

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WITH donkeys…

We are just two in the dormitory in Sarria, and able to take a delicious nap at 6pm before tea, a well-earned rest after a full day’s activity and fresh air.

‘Tasting one’s own presence in harmony with the world’s’.      p.143

All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

‘Galicia Guide – your guide to everything Galicia’ http://www.galiciaguide.com/Stage-28.html

Walking without a donkey 21: Pieros to Vega de Valcarce to Linares

14.11.16 – 15.11.16 Pieros to Vega de Valcarce 21.6km; Vega de Valcarce to Liñares 14.7km

The next day I rose even earlier than usual, and performed my T’ai Chi routine through twice. I relished the exercise in the freezing morning air, teetering on the bumpy slope as the sun appeared.

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Coming in from the cold, the dining room was cosy, and I was impressed by the healthy and satisfying breakfast. Afterwards, however, I was summarily kissed goodbye, not once, but twice, on the lips, by the ‘friendly’ hospitalier (see blog 20). I think that behaviour was a sort of unwelcome show for the other walkers preparing to leave. It was uninvited, and something which prompted uncomfortable comments for days to come. Walking in the sunshine undoubtedly frees the spirit, and I witnessed all sorts of happy meetings along the way. Despite that, the men I met were chivalrous, except this one who took advantage.

‘..everything recommences, everything sets off once more, and the dawn banishes the past along with the night.’

p. 98.

If possible.

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The snow far off.

Walking out of the Léon region, I admired the multi-coloured vines lined up neatly in the fertile valley below.

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Different grape variation, different hue.

By 10am, rucksack on my back and getting into my stride, I passed through Villafranca del Bierzo, with its round tower.

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Villafranca is another town heavily dependent on the Camino de Santiago, and it gets a mention as far back as the Middle Ages (791), for its wine producing monastery. Now it boasts at least 4 churches, 2 palaces and a castle!

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In Vega del Valcarce, I was happy to take my night’s rest in a private room, available presumably because there were considerably less pilgrims now the year was drawing to a close. The lady of the house was welcoming and generous, offering us eggs and veg from her garden, and I laughed out loud watching the kittens play and sending photos of them to my daughters.

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3pm

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Huerto = vegetable garden. Huevos = eggs.

In my diary for 15th November, I wrote, simply, ‘A beautiful day in every way’. It was a frozen morning. The sun was rising very late now, and I needed a jacket, gloves and hat to keep me warm.

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To wake up with nothing better to do than don the backpack, feed oneself and walk out into this. Wow! Fresh air in the nostrils, cheeks reddening, and the best of companions by my side.

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The harvest pumpkins were like great, gleaming gems in the frozen patch.

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As the day mellowed, the warm sun conjured the grass smell up out of the undergrowth, and produced….da-dah!…..blue sky.

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‘breathe and surrender to a well-being  slow as a forest path.’

Rousseau p.72

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‘Serenity is the immense sweetness of no longer expecting anything, just walking, just moving on.

p.46

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‘And once below a time I lordly had the trees and leaves

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas

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Heading into nature’s portals.

Oh the beautiful views, vistas of violet blue hills and lime green fields, framing the orange slopes and meadows of Galicia!

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Camino de Santiago, the Way of St James
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This is one of those panoramic shots!
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Resting after a gruelling climb.

The guide book said the next place was O Cebreiro, and knowing what was ahead encouraged me to keep going. Stumbling and crawling now, straining thighs, panting up tumbles of rocks, rounding a corner and thinking we were there, no! Passing a woman getting her breath back. And finally, the summit, with noble cross, 9th century church, thatched pallozas (huts), ground-hugging stone and slate buildings, all a mere 150km from the city of Santiago.

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Instead of staying in this pretty windswept place, we travelled a little further to Liñares, a very modern hostel of metal and glass with a picture window over the valley at dusk, and another private room. Bliss.

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All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Other Camino blog http://www.elcaminoasantiago.com/caminos/frances/etapa26.htm

 

Walking without a donkey 20: Foncebadon to Molinaseca to Pieros

12.11.16 – 13.11.16 Foncebadon to Molinaseca 19.5km; Molinaseca to Pieros 21.1km

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It was a cloudy start from Foncebadon this happy Saturday.

‘Daytime never starts with an act of will: it arises in unworried certainty. To walk in the early morning is to understand the strength of natural beginnings.’ (p.98).

I relished in the green lushness after the rain, which highlighted the autumn reds and orange.

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Cruz de Ferro (Hierro) is an important cross marking the highest point of the Camino Frances at 1517m, with its little chapel and enormous pile of meaningful stones, placed by pilgrims over the years. There are no public toilets along the path, and long gaps between bars (where you must buy something in order to use the facilities), so, sadly, there is always white paper behind these charming buildings.

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Cruz de Ferro
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The highest point of the Camino Frances. The altar could be glimpsed through the bars of the entrance.

It was to be a smaller number of kilometers that day, but a steep ascent to Manjarin, with quite a surprising welcome when we arrived. In fact, quite one of the most unusual situations I have ever been in.

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An (almost) abandoned village, Manjarin has one inhabitant, and his abode is decorated with insignia from all over the world, prayer flags, and messages in many languages. He welcomes walkers in to his warm ‘cave’. Leaving the light and moving into the dark, it’s initially impossible to see and there’s a musty scent. Then the passage opens out into a wide room, like something out of Robin Hood, with a rustic, bright fire and circular, wooden table, around which sit two men dressed as Knights with the red Templar cross on their tunics.

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We are offered, and I drink, for the first time in perhaps 25 years, a (caffeinated) coffee. There are snacks and as our eyes get accustomed to the dimness, there is plenty to see around the walls. We listen to their chatter as they incongruously show each other photos on their mobile phones.

On the way out, we are invited to join a ceremony at the altar containing a statue of the Virgin and lots of Camino shells, and I am given a flag to hold, while one man reads a moving prayer (in Spanish) for peace and harmony amongst all peoples.

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We descend almost 500m that afternoon, mist swirling around, with breath-taking views, through the mountain village of El Acebo de San Miguel (means, Saint Michael’s holly) in upper El Bierzo, and down to Molinaseca. I can smell the damp, decaying landscape, and feel the droplets on my face as I tramp. There’s the dry shush of copper leaves as I keep to the softer edges to avoid the tarmac. My feet have become so sensitised that I fancy I can feel each stone through my soles, but at least after all this time my feet have hardened and are blister-free. Most of the trees have lost their leaves at this altitude, although withered blackberries remain on the brambles.

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There were trees with silver lichen and scarlet, rotund seed heads; and dry, beige grasses reminiscent of the Scottish hills. Village streets wound round stone dwellings with sturdy wooden balconies, seemingly deserted except for, here and there, washing hanging out to dry in the grey day. Even without the sun, the wooded slopes of the valleys were spectacular as the clouds hung among them.

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Molinaseca has a comparatively large population of  800, surprising after the day’s rural walk, with it’s handsome church and bridge, and where we stayed at the municipal dormitory as usual, with its bunks, wooden floor and steel beams.

The sky cleared as we slept, revealing a blue morning.

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And an hour later we entered Ponferada, on the river Sil, with its imposing monastery, castellated and turreted. It’s the official end of the Camino Frances and the start of the Camino Santiago, but you would not know that as you walked through.

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The road continued through yellow glades, over ancient stone bridges, and past single storey, white stone, one-room buildings with dark grey slate rooves. There were more cranes nests on top of council-erected poles, and ‘authentic’ murals showing monks and pilgrims striding out. The path widened and flattened, and the mountains were once again in the distance. We passed through Cacabelos without stopping, the end of the day’s trek now nearby, and up another very steep incline, to Pieros.

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This tiny hostel Casa Sol y Luna was an alternative to the norm, with it’s meditation room upstairs and cosy dining room down. The hospitalier was most attentive, drying my knickers in front of the stove, and accompanying me to see the massive harvest moon I had seen heralded on Facebook  (but impossible to photograph with a mere phone camera)!

The walls of the small dorm were like outdoors indoors, where you can see the grouting between the stones. We spent time gossiping over which enthusiastic youths lived here, who was sleeping with whom (was she creeping off in the middle of the night to avoid the snoring, or for a tryst with the lascivious gentleman?), and I translated the gushing messages in the visitor’s book for the owner (all about stars and angels – it was that kind of place). We had a delicious vegan meal with wine in situ as it was a Sunday (no shops open), and there was much warmth, song and laughter at the table that night.

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Hostal Casa Sol y Luna, Pieros. View from the garden.

All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Thanks to Alain for taking beautiful photos.

A fellow walker’s blog http://www.caminosantiagodecompostela.com/camino-de-santiago-frances/part-3-leon-santiago/24-astorga-molinaseca/

Walking without a donkey 19: Mazariffe – Astorga – Foncebadon

10.11.16- 11.11.16 Mazariffe to Astorga 31.2km; Astorga to Foncebadon 27.2km: 2 long walks!

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Puenta de Órbigo

In Mazariffe, over half way now along the Camino Frances, I met a group of sympathetic French speaking women and gave some Shiatsu for suffering feet. We shared an enjoyable meal with only a little disagreement between the sexes!

In a room full of bunks, in the middle of the night, if you are sharing with 15 others, ‘Any shifting to ease your limbs, the rustle of your sleeping bag assume (sic) enormous proportions’ (p. 61), and you inevitably wake someone up in the bunk above. Or was it them who woke you? Anyway, the pilgrim’s day often ends very early with everyone in their bunks by 9pm, and starts before the daylight, so by 7am we will have had a good, long rest.

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It was another bright and beautiful morning as I walked out of town on the Calle Camino. Colder today, I had my hat and gloves on with cotton trousers over my shorts for the first couple of hours. After all, it was the second week of November!

I appreciated a feat of engineering as I passed through Hospital de Órbigo, where the Orbigo Bridge has an alternative name – El Paso Honroso, the Bridge of Honour. It is apparently where a chivalric battle for love freed the Léonese knight, Suero de Quiñones in 1434.

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River Orbigo

The walking was calm through golden crop fields, and along straight, rural roads where I was stopped, most unusually, by a noisy flock of sheep blocking the path on their way to pasture.

I found myself silent at times, companionable at others (‘For solitude can be shared, like bread and daylight.’ p. 54). It depended on the people I walked with and who passed by, the jolly Buen Camino’s (have a good walk!) reminding me that I am part of a movement of pilgrims, in the ancient medieval tradition, moving always westwards with the sun at my left shoulder.

‘ Thoreau walked (towards the West, but one always heads westward when walking properly) not to find himself, but always to be in a position to reinvent himself’. p. 102.

I spent a great deal of time, as I wended my way, thinking about my past and my habits, and debating with others about life in general. Side-by-side, as we fell into step, intimate conversations and confidences seemed to flow – something about the distances and the rhythm seemed to invite this.

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Mountains in the distance

The intense spiritual nature of the walk is reinforced by the many memorials, often found at the top of steep hills. People have walked to remember loved ones, to be healed, or to say goodbye to life, knowing they do not have long, so you will continually see women and men with a remembrance stone in their hand ready to add to the pile, or place mindfully at the foot of a cross.

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It is not unusual for there to be an arduous climb at the end of a day, and the entry into Astorga was no exception. It find it a challenge when I am tired, but there is usually a sense of arriving ‘with victorious energy’ (p. 123), a reviving bubble of excitement in my tummy to make up for it.

‘And when evening comes, one hardly needs to think: just breathe, close your eyes and feel on your body the layers of landscape dissolving and recomposing…The colour of the sky, the flash of the leaves, the outlines of the jumbled hills.’ p. 97.

That night I stayed in the usual municipal dormitory, surrounded by snorers and, indeed, adding to the cacophony myself. I found that lying in such close proximity to others was reassuring rather than disturbing.

In the mornings we often rose in silence, packing up our rucksacks, and padding back and forth to the loo with only the bathroom light in one corner to see by.

It was not until breakfast that the noise began, as people tended to jostle for the use of the pans to heat water for drinks; and laugh at the strange things others were eating at that time of the morning: left-over pasta from the night before so it didn’t have to be carried; lots of sugar for avoiding muscle cramps; and the magnificent meals of noodles, meat and veg which the many Korean walkers always took a great deal of time and trouble to prepare at that early hour.

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Capella de Santa Vera Cruz

I find I am once again photographing glorious monuments in the early morning light, although I notice that my phone camera struggles to focus properly.

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Palacio de Gaudi (Gaudi Palace)

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Museo de los Caminos (Camino museum)

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It was to be a stunning day of mixed terrain: roads cutting between countryside,

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the mountains getting closer,

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and surprising gems such as a flight of steps leading to an annotated map of the Camino and the towns and villages it passes through.

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But then our luck ran out. Well it had to some time I guess. We descended steep highways and the rain came on, and so we arrived in Foncebadon, thoroughly wet through and with feet squelching. There was a shop displaying good-looking food as I entered town, and later I was glad to have bought tortilla slices, wine, and other deliciousnesses for my tea, because the albergue was still a long way away, and once arrived and de-booted I definitely did not want to go out again.

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Marigolds (calendula) and holyhocks around a village doorway, before the rain.
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Rosehips scarlet against the cirulean sky.

We were amongst the first to arrive, and the hostel was freezing, with a very unusual lay-out: there was a wood burning stove in the centre, surrounded by three wide, deep, slate steps. Two stairways at the end led, right and left, to a mezzanine floor with bunks and mattresses. The hospitalier was an example of the most helpful we came across. He sourced newspapers to pack the wet footwear, went next door for multiple bottles of wine (not all for me!), and above all, he lit the fire. The steam began to rise, and it would have been a good idea to wait to have a shower because, eventually, so did the heat, up into the sleeping area. By the time we had our supper, the place was cosy, and faces were ruddy.

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All along the way the personal stories I heard were amazing, and Inger was no exception: a Norwegian woman, she started her mega cycle from home in August, panniers bulging with an extra wheeled section attached to the back of her bike. She had already covered more than 3,500 km, and when she finished this Camino she was heading to Portugal. She told me all about her grandson, and then explained that she had broken down and needed a part. By the end of the evening a plan was in place: to save her a fruitless journey, a kind Italian man would message her on arrival the next day in the main town, to let her know if the shop had the bit she needed. It was successful – she passed us a few days later!

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The wide, clay path of the Camino in this area.

All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

Walking without a donkey 18: Madrid to Léon to Mazariffe

8.11.16 – 9.11.16 Madrid to Léon 337km 3 hrs (bus); Léon to Mazariffe 22.2km (walking).

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Taken from the bus between Madrid and Léon

I travelled back to the Camino sooner than planned, eager to start to walk again and rejoin friends. The bus journey seems interminable when you are so keen to arrive, and isn’t it often the case that the more you care, the more the delay!

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Cathedral Santa Maria de León

Léon is an active, large town with elegant squares and imposing edifices. The Cathedral is almost overwhelming in its grandeur, and because there is now a charge to get into all parts, I focused on the cloisters and side chapels.

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Side chapel with the Virgin
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The simple yet inspirational cloister ceiling

An exceptionally kind fellow pilgrim, Alain, had found accommodation in a tastefully restyled, ancient building, and prepared meals for me, so I was well cared for after my journey.

And we enjoyed visiting the ancient sights in the rather damp weather.

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Detail from the Cathedral cloisters of muscly thighs and putti
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Detail showing the Camino shell. From the cloisters of the Cathedral

On the way out of town, I spotted this moving statue of a suffering man on a podium. There was more of his work around the city which is well worth seeing.

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The next day dawned bright for walking once again, joyfully, under familiar azure skies. There was an impressive Gaudi building to admire on the way out of town.

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Casa de los Botines, Antoni Gaudi 1892-93
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In the Plaza de San Marcelo

It was a manageable stage to Mazariffe, with convivial company, gorgeous landscapes, wonderful to be in the open air again, and walking.

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There were many more tarmac kilometres and they are more tiring than walking on the natural paths.

“The perfect evenness of tarred roads ends by boring the feet.” p. 95 A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.

But there was so much else to create happiness, it didn’t matter.

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‘I am on a path to Villar (de Mazariffe) in the middle of nowhere Northern Spain, I haven’t seen a pilgrim in the last hour, and I just felt…euphoric. I was dampish and cold, but I felt euphoric. I AM WALKING THE CAMINO. So like George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, I suddenly felt so appreciative of..of..of everything..’ This expresses the sort of sentiment I felt and heard others make, over and over, on the Camino Francés. It is taken from this blog: Ted’scamino.com

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