There is a spiritual-political-geographical link between Edinburgh, Scotland where I live, and Cataluña in the Iberian Peninsula where the Encounters are taking place (Girona, Olot and Vic). In both countries, we have long been engaged in matters of self-determination, with debates over separation and unity, community, national and inter-national relationships. Whilst primarily represented as a battle fought in law courts and parliaments, or between opposing protesters on the streets, this has often been a binary approach. It is necessary to spend time listening, sharing and making work with artists and members of the community in order to understand each other better and find possible ways forward.
Europe is defined, in many ways, by borders. They speak of crumbled empires, shifting boundaries – most of them, …. speak of unimaginable suffering.
Kerri ni Dochartaigh ‘Thin Places’ p17
As a walking artist, secular pilgrim, feminist and outdoor performer, I will carry the awareness of these issues from the Scottish hills to the Cataluñian mountains, from Edinburgh’s extinct volcanoes (Arthur’s Seat, Calton Hill and Castle Rock) to the volcanic land of Olot, and between Oak Wood in the Lammermuir Hills and the oak trees of the Plain of Vic.
I have been walking the St Margaret’s Way through the carboniferous volcanic rocks of the Burntisland area in Fife, Scotland, and will be able to carry my experiences with me on the ancient spiritual path which unites each of the three conurbations where the Encounters are happening, the Camí de Sant Jaume (Camino Catalán).
Separation and Unity
This is the artistic focus
in the human experience (notions of belonging and alienation, shared feeling and dislocation);
consideration of the other-than-human and our relationship to that realm; and in the landscape.
Collecting words, images, marks, and sound segments
Film and pamphlet on return to Edinburgh.
Collaboration with delegates during the International Encounters will take the form of walking sections of the urban camino together in each of the three locations. This ritual series of three mini pilgrimages will be a way of considering the spiritual aspect (in the widest sense of the word), and the trinity of psychogeographical outings will form a unity between the three sites for the purpose of comparing sensations, ideas and feelings. Each walk will start with an embodied exercise for individuals, a group game for unification, and prompt = one hour in each place:
Girona: starts at the Cathedral
Olot: starts at Plaça Major
Vic: starts at Pont d’en Bruguer
I will be making contact with women for whom this focus is pertinent, both in Scotland and Cataluña. As always I will seek Shiatsu practitioners with whom to exchange.
Camino means both the act of walking and path in Spanish. There are many caminos and they all end up at Santiago de Compostella in the top left hand corner of Spain.
Where is the camino?
When you hear someone talking about walking the Camino they usually mean that they are following all or part of the east to west route called the Camino Francés, the most popular.
In what part of Spain is the camino?
This camino starts in France at Saint Jean Pied de Port (Saint John at the foot of the pass) in the Pyrénées-Atlantiques region, crosses the Pyrénées mountains to Roncesvalles, passes through the Basque Country, Cantabria, Asturias and Galicia, ending at….. you have guessed it, Santiago. You can start anywhere along this route.
Sorry, what is it called again ?
Also known as The Way of St James (Sant (saint) iago (James) in Spanish), The French Way, or The Camino de Santiago, it is 500 miles long (near enough 800kms), and takes between 25 and 50 days hiking. You can also cycle it which is quicker, but that’s another story.
The Way is a pilgrimage and those who walk it are traditionally known as pilgrims – peregrinas (female) or peregrinos (males) in Spanish.
Pilgrim Passport / scallop shell
Carrying a pilgrim passport or Credencial del Peregrino which gets stamped every time you stop for the night is a great way to keep a record of your hike. Hanging a scallop shell, symbol of Saint James, on the back of your rucksack is a proud way to indicate your sense of belonging to this famous confraternity.
Who can walk the camino?
People of all ages and nationalities make this trek and they do so for many reasons: religious (especially Catholic); social (it is a great way of making friends); fitness (sensible walking is good for your breathing, circulation and musculo skeletal system); and personal (at times of major life changes, or for the benefit of their mental health).
Do I have to walk ALL of it?
You can walk as much or as little as you like. Some go the length and others do sections several times a year or year-by-year. The most popular part is the final 69 miles (111 kms) from Sarria to Santiago which earns you a Compostella, a certificate in Latin. Aficianados come back time and time again.
How far will I walk every day?
I highly recommend that you take it easy, at least to start with, whether you are young or old, male or female. This means 9 – 12.5 miles (15-20 kms) at the beginning. Even if you are fit and feel fabulous in the glorious Spanish sun, beware! You will almost certainly get blisters and a sprain or strain if you walk too far too soon (unless you honestly walk 9 miles (15 kms) or more every day at home in the same shoes or boots which you intend to wear).
Where do I sleep?
Most pilgrims stay in hostels or albergues. Their facilities vary, but almost all offer a basic bunk in a dormitory for between 5 and 12 euros (£4.50 – £11) per night. You do not have to book in advance, indeed sometimes you cannot. There are also hundreds of hotels and private hostels, usually at a higher cost with greater luxury.
What do I take with me? How much do I have to carry?
Historically everyone would have carried their own clothes and equipment in a backsack. (see What to Put in Your Rucksack). Nowadays there are many companies who offer to transport your stuff from hostel to hostel so that you can walk with a daypack and water only if you choose. You can even hire a donkey!
Many hostels offer a basic breakfast, and shared meals in the evenings can be a highlight. Kitchens, with (or sometimes without) utensils are the norm. There are cafes, bars and restaurants all along the way and at every stop where the food is often delicious and cheap. There are plenty of shops which will sell you most things you need such as suntan lotion or a single egg wrapped cleverly in a paper cone.
Time of year to walk the camino
All times of the year are good for walking the camino! It is hot in the summer (and crowded); cooler in the Autumn with great natural colours (it can also be really warm but with cold nights); pretty with wild flowers in the Spring (lots of daylight); and peaceful in Winter (though some of the albergues will be shut).
Speaking Spanish. Yo hablo espanol.
It really helps if you speak some Spanish. It’s polite, respectful and fun to be able to communicate with the local people. You are also more likely to be served what you have ordered.
Travel from the UK
You can take a boat to Santander (71.5 / 155 kms to Burgos) from the UK; There is an airport in Santiago itself (from there you can take a bus back east to the place where you want to start walking) itself, as well as La Coruna (82 miles / 132 kms from Sarria). Also, Asturias airport for Leon (from Stansted only), Bilbao (from Edinburgh, Manchester and others) for Pamplona, and Biarritz (33.5 / 54 kms from Saint Jean from Birmingham and others); Overland, there are trains taking 5 hours from Paris (4 per day, approx. 35 euros) and the Eurostar from London is smooth and efficient (around £50 and just over 2 hours). You can also take Alsa (long distance) buses or try Bla Bla Car (car pooling).
There are many books and online guides to help you find your way, pointing towards places to stay and eat. Gerald Kelly and John Brierley’s are the best known in English. Using this guide means that you will inevitably walk the same steps (stages of the walk) as other English speaking folk and will therefore have pals to walk and share meals with before long. The municipal hostels at the end of these stages are the busiest.
Start slowly, in short stages, do not be too ambitious until the second week, and that way you will avoid going home early and in pain (I have seen this happen many times). It doesn’t matter if other people are going further. You will either catch up with them later or you will find new companions instead, ones who are enjoying the scenery as much as you.
There are also other caminos in Spain: The Via de la Plata which starts in Seville and goes through Salamanca; the Camino Norte along the coast passing through San Sebastian; the Inglés from A Coruña; Mozarabe through Malaga and Cordoba, and many others. Criss crossing this stunning country, the walking is delightful, the people colourful, and the experience one which you will remember for the rest of your life.
Have you walked the Camino Francés or any of the other ones in Spain? Leave a comment and share your experience.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 22 (Tábara to Santa Marta de Tera). Wednesday 11 April 2018. 22 kms.
‘And what’s best is that you are always received without fuss, welcomed, as if they had been expecting you to come. ‘ From Ursula le Guinn’s Left Hand of Darkness
Not in Oliva de Plasencia! I was reading le Guinn on my Kindle while I travelled because it was the Leith Bookworms book and my friends were reading it at the same time. I liked to keep up even if I couldn’t attend the meetings. It can be a good challenge to follow the list because I read books I wouldn’t usually choose for myself, move out of my comfort zone. In this case I had never read sci-fi before but I knew that le Guinn was extremely well thought of (after all she is used as an important part of the plot in the decidedly mainstream Jane Austen Book Club film!)
There was a photo session at the front door with José / Almeida (his pen name), the hospitalero who had looked after us so well, and then I set off with my friend Marie Noëlle and her pals Sascha (Luxembourg) and Maria (Switzerland) under a white sky. Sometimes we all three walked alongside each other, but more often I held back and took a quieter way, meeting up at intervals for coffee and wee chats.
We left the town of ridged terracotta rooves and telephone poles behind, and headed quickly into open country. There is an alternative way to regain the camino by retracing your steps back the way you came, perhaps for shopping before leaving. For me, it was too early for them to be open and I was keen to get off the tarmac asap.
As I walked I reflected on the things I wished I had brought with me: my swimming costume which I left on the line in Caldzada, a pair of flipflops to protect my feet from dirty floors and ideal for wet and dry (though uncomfortable with socks), clothes pegs (there are often a few at the hostels but not enough to go round), a plastic tupperware pot to put food in (although I was able to buy one for a few euros), and ointment for bites.
I was keeping a list of topics for the teaching I had been engaged to do later in April. It was for the Shiatsu Society whose biennial congress was being held in Edinburgh. Topic: people watching – most apt given how many new people I am meeting and walking behind every day, and how lovely it is to sit in Spanish cafes with tired feet and gawp at passers by.
I stayed in the municipal hostel in Santa Marta de Tera for 5 euros.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 21 (Montamarta to Tábara). Tuesday 10 April 2018. 27.5 kms.
I took the Camino Sanabrés rather than passing back through places on the Camino Francés (Astorga etc) which I had visited the year before.
There was a small village strung out along the road, not so far from Tábara, with a cafe. I sat on the bridge and sunbathed – it was glorious.
Once I got going again it started to rain and I stopped, de-rucksacked and covered up. Then there was a rumble and a thunder and it got dark. The lorries were roaring past and spraying and I was ducking in and out of the ditch at the side of the road to avoid it when there was a fork of lightning at my left shoulder. I have never been so close. I wondered what I should do. Looking around there was nothing and nobody – just trees. I did think perhaps the metal batons weren’t such a good idea, but I couldn’t exactly abandon them and they had rubber handles and tips to earth me. I hoped. (Two days afterwards I met up with the American women and one of them did throw her sticks into the fields because she said she was so scared of being struck.)
Then the hail started and brought about a total landscape transformation.
It did stop eventually and on and on I went, every part of every mile seeming an age. I was very wet, too sopping to be able to get the map book out. Then again, there was only the one road to choose from.
There was a service station on the outskirts of Tábara and I stumbled in to get some cover and ask for directions to the albergue. There was pandemonium in there because the electric storm had shut down the till and no-one could pay for their petrol. I waited with heaviness on my back and realised how exhausted and hungry I was. And I waited.
In the end, I did something I have never done before: I took a chocolate bar off the shelf, sunk to the ground, sat with my legs splayed out in front of me like a rag doll, and devoured it without paying for it first. It was wholly necessary.
To my horror it was a further 30 minutes walk to the hostel and I had thought I was at the complete end of my energy. Hey, I simply had to find more.
It was uphill and a very long road, and just as I was despairing that it would not end, there was a shriek and who should I see coming towards me but Marie-Noelle and her smile, someone I had not seen for several days. She gave me a big and welcome hug on her way to the bar.
There were 10 people round the table drinking wine and eating simple fare. Some I had met before, some I had not, each of us from a different country, and of course we made ourselves understood – a true camino experience at the end of a most trying day.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 20 (Zamora to Montamarta). Monday 9 April 2018. 19 kms.
There was a deal of road walking on this leg of the journey.
Here are predominantly photos as the notes app on my phone failed and all were lost despite it promising to back-up. Aim: to find a way to reinstate it!
Walkers, be careful soon after leaving Zamora, because there are arrows off to the left to the Portuguese camino!
The owners of the private hostel Tio Bartolo also have a bar and work at the Covitan supermarket where you get the keys. It looks good in the photos and was recommended by the hospitaliere in Zamora, but I picked up some sort of infection walking barefoot on their floors. There were two American women and myself in the large dormitory under the roof, and we huddled in our beds and in our sleeping bags (there were blankets available). The weak, free-standing heaters which the landlady found us because all our clothes were wet, shorted the electric circuit and anyway, when the husband discovered she had given them to us (because he had to come and switch things back on) he shouted and swore and took them away. There were people in the small rooms downstairs who paid much more than we did (15 euros including breakfast which was left in the cupboards by the long-suffering wife and was not up to much at all).
Hostels and facilities
There are many facilities in Montamarta including a municipal albergue which had been shut for a while and opened the night I was there, but I had been told it was closed so didn’t try to find it. It is now rennovated and had good reports from the people I spoke to the day afterwards. There were two others mentioned in my book – El Bruñedo and El Asturiano – neither of which were open.
I had decided to go to Montamarta because otherwise it was a very long day (33 kms I think) and the pains I had been having in my feet dissuaded me from such a trek. I found a bar that wasn’t owned by the proprietor, on the main road, and charged my phone. The waitress was very kind, but it wasn’t somewhere I could stay long.
That was a really low few hours, and I used Facebook to send out a message to my friends, ‘Should I just go home?’ Some said yes, some no! I kept on going. And you know what? It got a whole lot worse the next day – in a different sort of way!!
‘But my business is unlearning, not learning, and I’ll change with the world but I won’t change it.’ from Ursula le Guinn’s Left Hand of Darkness.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 18 (Villaneuva de Campéan to Zamora). Sunday 8 April 2018. 18 kms.
I have lost all my notes for this week and there are a lot of photos for 8th April so there are few words.
The sun rose on my right. It lit up the lush fields on my left as if it was a different time of day there.
Calendula (marigolds) and roses in full flower in San Marcial. Red and white cycle path signs reminiscent of the Grande Randonnee in France.
Coming into the city of Zamora (‘The pearl of the 12th century’) along the River Duero, close to the border with Portugal in north-west Spain.
Later there was a queue of us waiting at the allotted time and, unexpectedly, it hailed hard. There was only a tiny ledge for everyone to huddle under and not enough space for the luggage, so in five minutes the rucksacks, boots, everything was soaked.
The hospitalera was most hospitable (sorry!). She was a fountain of knowledge having worked there for a long time and she was clearly in her dream job – loving chatting and finding out where we were all from. She had great English and knew what we needed. There is a fantastic kitchen and Marie Noelle had been before us, messaging me to say that she had cooked meals for the Seuil men – one vegan for E and the other with meat for the growing lad. I was very lucky that they shared it with me – a veritable feast.
Baltasar Lobo (artist 1910-1993 buried in the Cimetiere du Montparnasse, Paris, France)
His work is in a dedicated gallery (free entry) beside the Castle and also scattered around the grounds nearby.
I highly recommend Zamora as a tourist destination.
Via de la Plata Camino – Day 17 (Mérida to Ourense). Saturday 7 April 2018. 13 kms.
The 7th April was a day of varied landscapes – some of the previous day’s wide open fields but also smaller agricultural plots, some houses, the ‘iron road’ etc. I was going at a faster pace, partly because it was cold but also as I knew it was a much shorter day. Going to Zamora in one leg was too long, so I was dividing it into two.
After last night’s heavy rain, it was dull but, hooray, dry! I passed out of the village, took a left over the bridge and straight into the country with no road – another big plus. Cocks were crowing and I spotted them at the front door.
Weirdly there was a digital town clock striking 9am, just as loud as normal bells but with an electronic tone, reminding me of the early days of mobile phones when TV programmes made jokes about huge handsets with ringtones sounding out across the country.
It was right at the fork despite no yellow arrow and I was walking by the railway. The next right was signed. I wondered, why one and not the other?
I reflected on last night’s round-the-table conversations: how some people do the whole camino all at one go, others walk one weekend at a time; some start here, some there; and I have been meeting so many folk with injuries.
Plant of the day: once again I do not know the name. It has round burgundy / black pods or fruits that I have not seen before. They were hanging on dead trees and when I trod on one which had fallen on the path, it was full of diarrhoea-coloured mush which looked like wet plaster board.
Who would have thought Spain could be quite so cloyingly muddy with wet sand! There was that cuckoo again – Marie Noelle used to tell me it means she will be rich.
My nose runs and pilgrims behind me sneeze. I notice that cows do stand very, very still sometimes!
I muse: people I know walked here yesterday; or the day before; even 3 years ago. I can follow in their footsteps until it rains, wiping out all trace.
The yellow arrows used by the Friends of the Camino to show us the way are not really the best colour given that there are a surprisingly large number of the same hue: yellow lichen beside the arrows on the gate posts, yellow triangles on pylons, and motorway relfectors found at ground level at the edges of the roads where we have to walk. They are all found in the very places we look for the indicators.
There is a great racket and then I see a flock of sheep being let out of the pen beside a farm, trotting into the field in single file with their new earrings, complaining bitterly.
Looking up I see it is going to become hilly again. The rabbits are too quick for my camera and there are definitely more flowers now, thank goodness. Beautiful purple / pink rocks are embedded in the white / yellow path amongst all the other colours of the irregularly shaped stones.
I arrived at 11.45am and was second into the hostel. I stopped at the bar for the key and had a quick coffee (every now and then I enjoy a tiny decaff with sugar – something I never have at home).
There are a number of albergues in Villanueva de Campéan, all apparently as low grade as the others, private ones costing the same as the municipal where I slept. I entered the sleeping area through the kitchen which had a microwave but no fridge and was dirty. Not only does the outside door open directly onto the kitchen, but there is a great gap above the wall between that and the dormitory so the cold and noise travels easily between the two and the street, as does the cigarette smoke. Luckily there were loads of us so we were cosy.
One by one we all settled in the bar for the rest of the day, and what a great band of cosmopolitan trekkers we were. I managed to write three blogs, trying to catch up, and then decided to continue when I got home. It was simply too loud and hilarious (the locals were playing cards and everyone was watching the football). Lots of red wine and menu del dia‘s were consumed and the atmosphere was most convivial.
In The Pilgrimage to Santiago, Edwin Mullins writes about the history of sending ‘sinners’ on the camino as far back as the 13th century: ‘…there is the case of the parish priest near Chichester [England] who would regularly fornicate, repent, then fornicate again, until in 1283 the Archbishop of Canterbury felt obliged to send him to Santiago as a penitent the first year, to Rome the second and to Cologne the third. What is not on record is whether the cure was successful or whether he thereafter weighted his repentance with the names of three foreign cities in which he had also fornicated.’