I flew from Edinburgh at lunch time without any incidents, and had time to spare in Stanstead where I have never seen so many people in short shorts in such a small place!
My plane was arriving in Alicante at 9.30pm and I needed to be in Valencia by the morning. I had researched many different ways to make the transfer, and as previous readers of my blog will know, I have had adventures with Bla Bla Car in the past, so I went with that option. However, this time it backfired: the driver cancelled a few minutes before boarding for Spain and that left me without any way to make the journey that night as the final bus between the cities leaves at 9.30pm.
I remembered how people have turned up to help me when I have had challenges before, so when I was in my seat before take-off I asked the woman, Ana, in the next chair if she could check my Spanish translation, and she was a honey! As we were delayed on the runway (yes, Ryanair), she was invaluable in helping me search and book an Air bnb, as well as an early morning bus, so by the time I was in the air I had plans. Then we had time for stories of family and travel, cake decorating, and common kindness. The sun set like an inside out blood orange.
Of course arriving in Spain in July, even in the late evening is a hot thing to do. But I managed the bus into town smoothly (2 euros 70) and made the journey on foot to Pilar’s. Oh, to exist was to be covered in a smooth, thick, sheen of sweat!
I had not brushed up on my Spanish before leaving as I meant to, and so was rather pleased to hear myself finding accessible vocabulary which I thought I had forgotten. Pilar and I swapped walking stories and tales of a knee which won’t allow her to climb. I managed about 5 hours sleep.
Walking through dark Alicante at 4am I marveled at the ink black sky and waning moon. Bored Guardia Civil were on their phones, and divers back packers on the edge of the pavement or draped over rucksacks with black eye masks. Me? this time I had a suitcase and smaller rucksack so I did not belong to that itinerant group.
I managed to dissuade a random man from linking up with me, and on the bus Spanish radio voices rattled away, and girls made excited phone calls as I drifted in and out of sleep. I was so tired that a stiff neck and hips did not deter me.
And in no time at all there was Valencia, its sun rising in pastel colours of baby blue and pink with old gold at the edges and it was already 25 degrees at 7am. I had been warned!
And so I arrived in Olocau, and the market was in full swing as we drove through the village (see previous blog).
The first thing I noticed was the wonderful aroma of lemony pine. I was welcomed by the dogs Pollo (chicken in Spanish) and Louis who were to be my companions for the next three weeks.
First I had free range eggs from their chickens for breakfast, and later I was shown how to feed and care for them.
There was sort of surround sound, a constant zzzzz, that might be mistaken for electricity but was of course cicadas.
Inside there was the sound of trickling water from the goldfish tank, outside the swimming pool jets, and occasional renting of the peace by the dogs’ warning barks.
Actually there was plenty of quiet between it all for my meditation, and although in the Sierra Calderona at this time of day the sun was around and above, in the valley was a very green cool.
Above the house and village are grand cliffs and I half expected the heads of American presidents to morph out of them.
My first proper walk was wonderful for the first 3 hours, but then I became aware that the sun was still on my right (it was about 10.30am) and that therefore I was heading north. I should have curved around and started to head for home before this, so I must have missed the path. Eventually I discovered I was in Antigua Marines. The scale of the map was too small for me to find paths through the mountains, and the only way google showed me home was by road. That was when I discovered that the dogs were not traffic savvy and I could not control them. In the end I hit upon phoning Sue, a woman I had not even met yet, to be collected in the car. What a disaster!
Other walks I made during the following week were frequently in 30 degrees, with warm golden evening light, and I got lost a lot: I came across a fountain that way (photo at top of page); I admired the goats which were multi-coloured with twisted horns, bells tinkling, and ear tags – they were nervous of me but not of the dogs; and the magnificent variety of greens.
Today I removed a tiny bloated frog from the bottom of the pool, yesterday more than one whopping great spider, and the day before a courageous hedgehog. I do not know how long he had been there, and I know hedgehogs love to swim (so it says on the internet anyway), but then I saw him going under and so I hoiked him out with the dustpan which I had been using to clear the patio. He just stayed put on the grass for ages, breathing but not even hiding his snout. Eventually I wrapped him in a towel, put him in a box and placed the box in the flower bed. I thought he might be starving if he had been in the pool for hours (or even all night). An internet site suggested he might like scrambled eggs and green beans, but by the time they had cooked and cooled he had left.
What to take with you (and more helpful info.) for beginners.
Just to give you an idea of the context: I walked the Camino Francés (Spain) in October/November 2016, two thirds of the camino Via de la Plata / Sanabrés (Spain) in December 2016 and May 2017, and some of the randonnée GR223 (Normandy, France) also in May 2017, so you will deduce that I have walked in temperatures ranging from 20 to 41 degrees, in a relatively small area of Europe. I am under 5 foot tall (1.524 metres) and 7-and-a-half to 8-and-a-half stone (50-55 kilos). Take into account that I am female, just over 50 years old, and pretty fit with no injuries.
The basic recommendation is 10 percent of your weight, but given that many women’s weight varies according to time of month / day etc, and that you will undoubtedly lose weight as you walk, this is just a general guideline. It does not include water (1 to 2 litres depending on the weather and the route), nor food (only snacks are really necessary for a basic 6 hour walking day, except on a Sunday).
What sort of rucksack? I took a 44 kilo one which is easily big enough. Buy the strongest and lightest one you can afford, and you will have to have a cover for it. (Some people travel with nothing, or a laptop case with a toothbrush, but that’s extremely unusual.)
‘Each object a person carries represents a particular fear: of injury, of discomfort, of boredom, of attack. The “last vestige” of fear that even the most minimalist hikers have trouble shedding, he said, was starvation. As a result, most people ended up carrying “way the hell too much food”. He did not even carry so much as an emergency candy bar.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for link to Nimblewill Nomad.
So these are the ‘I absolute cannot do without’ items:
Boots or shoes: I wore second hand boy’s boots which a kind friend gave to me because her son had grown out of them. I did have blisters for a week or so but after that my feet got used to the walking and I was mostly fine. They got very wet very soon after it began to rain, and took a long time to dry. For my second trip I bought light-weight, waterproof, Columbia shoes, and they were wonderful except that they went into holes after 3 months. Not a blister in sight.
Foot cream: maybe antiseptic or anti-fungal, but definitely creamy cream is an absolute must. I was taught by my guardian angel of a companion on the Camino Francés to massage my feet every day before putting on my socks and shoes, and to do it again and air them well at night or when I stopped along the way. Vital!
Plasters (for blisters): preferably the special ones for all parts of your feet (heel, toes, balls), and I recommend the brand ones as the others come off after one day. A needle and thread – yes you heard right. Here’s why: thread the cotton through the needle and pierce the blister carefully with the needle. Draw the thread through the blister releasing the fluid (sorry!) and leave it there, removing the needle. Then tie a small knot and it should remain for a few days. The build-up of the fluid is the painful part, and this way that drains away whilst the skin remains almost in tact, allowing a new layer to grow underneath with the minimum of discomfort.
Passport and/or identity card, health card (to get free treatment in the EU, make sure it is up-to-date), and money: you may want one credit or bank card for emergencies (see below). I took a post office money card which, once I had worked out how to do it, I was able to quickly top up on my phone with euros.I also used it in big supermarkets and to pay for things over the phone/by internet like travel tickets. Paypal is also very useful if you have money in your account. Once again you can pay in £s or other currency. There are lots of cash machines on the Camino Francés and some on the other caminos. Banks are tricky because you have to be there when they are open and usually you will be walking during the morning and exhausted / too hot in the afternoon if they are open then, which they are not always.
Money: the Spanish caminos are cheap compared with France: allow 10 euros per night if staying at a hostel; coffee and tea are 1 euro each; the pilgrim menu is 6-10 euros; and supermarkets are basically cheaper than the UK. You will probably visit the supermarket every day as you will not want to carry food unless you have to (except for Sundays when everything is shut), and they are mostly geared to sell you one piece of fruit, one piece of fish, even eggs one at a time (watch the clever way they twist paper to make a carrying flute!).
By comparison France is really pricey, particularly accommodation, with the ‘auberges de jeunesses’ (youth hostels) being the cheapest. The ‘randonnee’ I walked was divided into stages but, in my experience, there were no cheap places to stay at the ends of those stages, not for backpackers.
Useful tip 1: for hostels/hotels make sure you research in advance for France and Norway.
Useful tips 2 and 3: Do not change money at the airport as it is very expensive, so take some currency with you from home. Neither should you use your ordinary bank debit or credit card unless you have checked before you go that you do not have to pay exorbitant charges for withdrawing money or paying in local currency. Many Spanish hostels will only accept cash.
Something to carry your important things in: I had a bum bag and liked it, but when it poured with rain everything got wet. My friend had a thick, flat plastic pouch round his neck, under the outer layer, and that was safe and stayed dry.
A ‘credential’, otherwise known as a pilgrim passport, which you can have stamped at every stop and will then present to the authorities in Santiago de Compostella so you can get your certificate of completion, your ‘compostella’.
A smart phone: I would suggest that you get the best phone you possibly can. One that
fits in your pocket
has as much internet capacity as possible (in the UK see ‘3’ for international packages and beware other companies who offer similar but which are geared to ‘normal’ holidays so are only valid for a month at a time)
has the best camera you can afford (back up your photos eg with Google which is free and easy)
has a torch
has maps (also useful for bus and train times etc)
has lots of space for apps (think guidebook app instead of a heavy Lonely Planet book, or specialist maps, airplane boarding passes, bus and other tickets, booking Bla Bla cars or accommodation, getting you out of trouble, making contact with home (or rescuers, or even new lovers)
has a translation app
has the capacity for writing notes as long as it is backed up (I write notes as I walk because I would not remember if not, but have been known to delete by mistake which is terrible ). You think you will remember everything but you probably won’t and so a notebook and pen or phone version may be invaluable
has Spanish or other language lessons on it eg Duolingo
is ‘big’ enough for downloading a film or book if you want.
A smaller, cheaper, old-style phone: I recommend you also take one of these, especially if you don’t have a contract on your smart phone which allows you to communicate outside your own country. You can buy a SIM card wherever you are and this will enable you to phone or text within that place. Also, if you lose it it isn’t the end of the world. The only problem I encountered was that one shop wanted a local address so my friend who lived there used his which caused problems when I wanted to top up. I suspect this wouldn’t always be the case.
A charger: I have had a great deal of luck with people lending or giving me a spare charger, and not much in buying cheap ones. You can charge your phone at all albergues (hostels) but if it is busy there will be a great deal of competition for the sockets, and although they are often by the beds they can also be in the kitchen or hallway instead. This means that you either need to stand beside the phone or trust that no-one will steal it – I didn’t hear of anyone having their phone stolen.
Useful tip 4: In Madrid you can get phone accessories in vending machines so you do not have to wait for shops to open. The quality seems to be good.
Useful tip 5: Always set a password or pass pattern on your phone so that others cannot open it.
Useful tip 6: You can charge your phone while waiting at bus stations. The sockets are at elbow height in the semi-outdoor parts of the buildings. You can also charge and get wifi on all intercity Spanish buses (eg Alsa).
An adaptor for 2-pin plugs: depending on where you are coming from and are travelling to, there are expensive international adaptors which are good if you are going all around the world, otherwise it is cheaper to get a 3-to-2 pin. You will only need one if you only have one gadget!
A wrap: I would not be without this large pink piece of cloth which doubles as a scarf, something to sit on, something to wear when visiting churches or at the mass in Santiago out of respect, a pillow, a cover-up…invaluable.
A sleeping bag or sheet: it depends on the time of year you will be walking and where. In the summer on the Spanish caminos you will not need a sleeping bag, but do take a sheet bag (I doubled over a single sheet lengthways and sewed the edges together), or buy a silk one to stop you getting bitten in the hostels and to keep warm in the early hours or if the windows are open. In the late Autumn you will need a proper sleeping bag and if you can afford it, get a light-weight but warm one as they pack very small.
A light-weight travel towel: it dries really easily and is worth investing in if possible.
A torch: a head one is very useful if you walk in the dark, ie you might want to leave before sun-up in summer to avoid the heat of the day, and it leaves your hands free. You might manage with a phone torch to avoid the weight though.
Useful tip 7: You can buy replacement batteries easily, so don’t take them with you from home as they are very heavy. Or you could use an eco- wind-up one.
Camera: one person I know buys a cheap one before every trip so as not to carry a big heavy one or risk losing it or having it stolen. I would rather have one piece of equipment so my preference is to get a phone with the best camera I can afford, but I accept that often real cameras are better quality.
Pockets in my shorts: – one for water, one for phone and toilet paper. If you choose to have a water bottle attached to your rucksack with a tube to sook on, you would have a pocket free (see below). If you wear shorts without pockets, well, you decide, but if you take as many photos as me you will be wanting to have the camera on hand.
Useful tip 8: when you are on the path you will not want to keep taking your rucksack on and off unless you really have to because it is unwieldy You would have to undo and do up, and then probably readjust all the straps, and you do want your hands free for the baton(s) or to swing your arms to keep the circulation going, or to hold hands with someone special.
Poles, batons or walking sticks: I walked the whole Camino Francés without one. Then I was gifted one and used it for the more tricky terrain of the end of the Via de la Plata / Sanabrés and was very glad to have it. BUT. Then I lost it and although I bought another one for the next trip, I also lost that one. SO…
Useful tip 9: Tie your baton(s) to your rucksack or boots when you stop, and at night so you do not leave them anywhere. I bought a children’s one from Go Outdoors for £5 which was fantastic, but then again, I am very short.
A map or guide book: well, it depends. The Camino Francés is very well signposted and whatever time of year you walk it there will be plenty of other people to help you find your way. Some people use theirs for a record, write notes in it and keep it for posterity. Others ceremoniously tear out the pages each night, as a sign of completion and to lighten their load. It is useful for albergues and other places to stay, and many are very well researched and have lots of interesting information. On the other hand there are also fantastic apps. Or you could wing it. As for the other caminos in Spain or elsewhere, in retrospect I would say get a book or app, but you will manage, especially if you speak some of the local language. People love to help even if they do not really know or understand you, so be prepared to be sent in the wrong direction sometimes!
Your specs and/or contact lenses and cleaning fluids if you use them. Sun glasses (whatever time of year).
2 x knickers or boxers (cotton, easy-dry material)
2 x bras if you wear them – it is nicer not to, many don’t
3 x socks double layer ones come highly recommended but they are expensive. Or wear one lovely soft, easy-dry pair underneath with a second pair on top which won’t need washing every night. You will need others in case your usual ones are still wet in the morning, and another pair if it is cooler in the evenings or for bed.
Useful tip 10: Do not wear wet socks!
1 x easy-dry T shirt and one other light top for evening that doesn’t need ironing and doesn’t crease.
1 x fleece, preferably light but warm with a hood to avoid the need for a warm hat. Note that walking by the coast along a linear walk (eg along the Normandy coast or the Camino Norte) means that there could be a strong breeze in one ear day after day.
1 x sun hat or cap (it is better to have a hat so that the back of your neck as well as your ears and face are shaded). Also a warm hat if you do not have a hood.
1 x light, easy-wash and -dry trousers if you don’t want to get sun burn, bitten or scratched. 1 x other pair of trousers – not jeans as they are normally heavy and even heavier if wet. A belt because you will get smaller!
Useful info: even if you don’t wear your jeans to walk in, your whole rucksack may get soaking wet and then you will still have to dry them and they take days.
1 x rain trousers and 1 x rain poncho / jacket. Make sure they are not just for light showers because if it rains all day everything will be wet through. Hopefully they will pack up very small.
Gloves: you might not need them but they are very small and light. I did wear them in the mornings in late November / December and once at night.
Useful reminder: if you are arriving by air and planning to take your rucksack on the plane, you can only take 100 ml per tube, bottle or pot, and all that has to fit in one very small plastic bag which seals, about the size of a small freezer bag. This includes all sorts of foodstuffs such as marmite and tahini. Neither can you take sharp things, so this also goes for nail clippers or scissors, pen knife and body hair razor.
You may also want:
a cream for between the buttocks /thighs or in the groin if you are male. All that chaffing…!
Sun tan lotion. Toilet paper or tissues. Toothbrush and toothpaste.
Condoms. The ‘pill’ if you are pre-menopausal and that’s what you usually use.
Hair ties are very small and light and you will probably want to keep your hair off your face if it’s hot.
Panty liners, sanitary towels etc. You can buy certain brands along the way.
Find a joint shampoo / conditioner / soap (there is rarely soap in hostels).
First aid: Antiseptic, sprain and bruise cream. I recommend natural calendula for cuts and rashes which also covers sun burn, and arnica (bruises, bumps), or Rescue Remedy cream for the same as arnica plus bites. Rescue Remedy for emergencies for you and others. Mosquito stuff. Any medications you usually take (order more before you leave home), and bring a repeat prescription just in case.
Utensils and food stuffs: A pan which doubles as a carrying pot, a tupperware for left-overs and freshness (bread, soft fruit, opened packets of biscuits, chocolate which might melt), knife/fork/spoon, salt/pepper/spices, water bottle(s), and green tea bags (obviously!).
Talking about rain, I happened to have a newspaper in the bottom of my rucksack (quite heavy in the scheme of things, but fortuitous) the day it rained and it soaked up the worst, whereas my friend’s things all got very wet.
A carrier bag or a small light rucksack: for shopping/evening or sightseeing when the big one is in the hostel but you still need something.
Notebook and pen: if you are not using your phone, and /or a sketch pad and pencil.
‘Shaving down one’s pack weight, he said, was a process of sloughing off one’s fears.’ M.J.Eberhardt, see below for Nimblewill Nomad link.
The thing I forgot and wish I hadn’t: a small plastic bottle to fill with delicious Spanish olive oil.
And you will probably be happy to have these with you:
Earplugs. Some dormitories are vast and in busy periods they are therefore noisy.
One of those half circular blow-up cushions for plane / bus / car journeys when you might want to shut your eyes. And some like an eye mask.
Clothes pegs – very light and easy to find little tiny spaces for.
A corkscrew (or just buy screw-top wine and ring-pull beer), and a cup.
A swimming costume – there were several times I wanted one. Even when I remembered it on my second trip, I sent it back and then wished I hadn’t!
Think very carefully if you really need these:
A book or kindle: It depends on you. Both weigh quite a bit and personally I have not read much while on the road or seen others read. Many hostels have shelves of free books which you can pick up, read and then swap for another further along the route.
Please note that I have no experience of tablets or other phone alternatives, but do try to keep the number of appliances to a minimum.
A wrist watch: your phone will probably do, and your tissues / flesh swells as you walk, plus there’s the sun and sweat. I found it was a nuisance.
Same with jewellery, especially rings – they all came off and then had to be stored carefully to make sure they didn’t get lost.
Make-up, hair straighteners, drier etc – I would say unnecessarily bulky and inappropriate but you know your self. If you need these things you might prefer to be in a private hostel as they have more amenitities for a slightly higher price.
1 x long skirt for walking: stops you getting your legs burned but I would recommend that you wear light shorts or boxers underneath. You will have to hitch it up for steep climbing eg Galicia on the Camino Francés.
A coat, jeans, woollen jumper or cardi: they are all heavy and hot (even if the weather isn’t great, you will get very hot when walking), they get sodden and are then extremely hard to dry, plus bulky in the rucksack.
Washing powder or liquid for clothes: you can easily use soap. And a clothes line.
You can send things home relatively cheaply, many people do: I met an English man who had bought his guitar to Spain with him, and he was on the way to the post office to send it home!
Don’t get attached to your belongings! You will probably leave things in the fridge, or forget them in cafés, or want to swap them for a bottle of wine. They are only things. Walking the caminos can help you with perspective.
Finally, always remember that you will not be very far from shops most of the time. Do some research of your route before you leave, but the caminos in Spain and the randonnées in France are near civilisation, at least every few day, so you can buy most things. You will be surprised what you can do without, source from other walkers, substitute, or find lying around.
23rd May 2017. Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Day 8: Villafranca de los Barros to Torremejía, in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Badajoz province. 26 kms which should take a minimum of 6 hours with breaks.
I left Villfranca at 5.50am and it was darker than ever before. Once I had found my way out of town I was in open scrub land. There was the dawn at the edge of the world; the sky was blue, red and orange. I heard the sound of a lone cockerel, saw a white horse just visible, and smelled the faint odour of farm fertiliser.
There were orange lights already in the distance, and tractors passed me under the tiny, thin crescent moon. Oh, the sweet, sweet feathered melodies!
As I found my stride, my state of mind calmed. My pack was extra heavy with provisions, and my feet already hot, but the air was cool and I gave thanks for that. The dusty path was occasionally lit up by one or two red tail lights. Then it went quiet. The flower buds were tightly shut.
The moment when the the sun finally rose was very exciting, and afterwards the opposite sky was a blank white.
‘(Pilgrimage is) … walking in search of something intangible..’ p. 45Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.
Some travellers write their blogs after getting home and I can see why; although the trekking itself does not take all day the mindset needed for that, together with the attendant tasks of looking after the BodyMind and dealing with practicalities, can do.
Indeed, I recently advised a prospective peregrino to leave books at home. That was partly due to the weight, but also because I do not read much when I am on a pilgrimage, and I do not see others reading around me. Fiction can transport you to another place, and many pilgrims believe that focussing on their spiritual goal is vital and do not want to be distracted.
‘…- and for pilgrims, walking is work.’ p. 45 Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.
On reflection, I ‘saw’ that I do tend to set myself extra and unnecessary tasks, and yesterday it transpired, I also did some needless work for the business back home thinking I was indispensible perhaps. As I put one foot in front of another I could take note of such patterns and habits of mine.
To the east were hills like different sized piles of manure you will clear up later. In the sky was an orange haze which seemed to be creating a white misty look between it and the land, whereas the other half of the globe was flat to the horizon, and the vineyards of the Ribeiro region a uniform blue. The arrows were easy to see, the backpack was no bother, but my feet were still calling my attention at times.
I enjoyed the immaculately ploughed red soil between rows of vines.
Olives, with their stumpy wiggly trunks, stretched into infinity. One patch had solar panels and an extra crop of what might have been green manure between the trees. The cordoned vines had thin little stems, perhaps because the wires were supporting them so they did not need to be stronger. I would like to know why some rows were planted north-south, and some east-west.
The sweet fennel and cow parsley smelled delicious. My skin remained cool, and it was brightening quickly. Other wild flowers competed with the blue of the sky, and there were pink His Master’s Voice horns of common bindweed by the path.
Before I left the hostel, breakfast looked better than usual so I had paid for it, and consequently I was full of sugary energy. My shadow was really tall; my alter ego which could reach things down from high shelves in the supermarket.
In the fields, today’s job was trimming the long tendrils, and other than those men, it was me myself I as far as I could see in both directions. Even the farmers were alone, although an occasional conversation reached me.
I liked the swirls in the earth at the ends of rows where the tractor had turned; hated the repetitive machinery noise to my left which source I could not see; and blocked my nose from the acrid, chemical smell I had been warned about.
I had also read that there was neither village nor water for the entire 26 kilometers and I could believe it. I only had one litre and so knew that I would have to be careful not to drink too much too soon. Sadly, as I took the signposted turning, the noise got louder.
The tireder I got, the less time had passed since I last looked at my watch. Chemicals smelling like paint were being sprayed so I tried to pick up pace, but my body had set its own rhythm. Tonight, I thought, I am drinking some wine!
By 8.40am I was no longer alone; there were four Italians in a group and another solitary man on the road. We moved at regular intervals from each other.
After almost 3 hours without a break, I was casting ahead for a tree throwing shade, but there was not one until 9.20! After a 15 minute break, and having eaten my orange because it was the heaviest and also full much needed fluids (delicious it was), I deduced that we were barmy, the lot of us, walking so far in this heat.
I then passed the hat-wearing man sitting on a wee waymarker, and he said he was muy cansado (very tired). He added that we were half way. On I went.
A town with unusual looking farm buildings appeared. Ah! maybe wine vats. It looked like the outside edges of a huge swimming pool and I imagined it was full of grapes with barefooted people trampling around it. Do they actually do that these days? It could of course be sewage, which would be less ‘romantic’.
Luckily, the actual smell was of newly cut branches and very fresh sap.
For some reason I suffered a lot of pains on and off, and I also started to feel the skin on my right arm and leg, the side where the sun was, getting that soon-to-be-burned feeling. To remedy it, I draped my magenta wrap over that side of me. That wrap sure does come in handy. (See my blog on what to pack in your rucksack).
Swifts zapped flies, zig-zagging across my sight. Were those cordoned olives? If they were, then that would make for many more plants per acre than the row system, so it would certainly make financial sense if the earth could sustain it.
I broke again at 10.45 for lunch under a tree, feet throbbing – it was so very hot. A pylon was crackling like a fire, indeed there was a smell of burning. As I ate I let my crumbs drop for the ants and watched one carry a huge piece away, picturing it arriving back home and saying ‘look what I got!’ It was a messy business for the bottom, sitting on the earth like that. I restarted at 11am and, yes, there were a lot of little inexplicable smouldering fires between the olive trees.
Towards the end of the day’s walk I spent a short period, only the second time in the past 8 days, talking to someone as we went along. He was from Barcelona and was doing the camino to get away from his demanding family, he said. He assured me that despite his exhaustion, of course he wanted to keep on walking until he reached Salamanca (a further 11 days). Such determination!
At 1pm in a 31 degree heat, after seven rather than six hours of walking, I arrived in Torremejía. (Put the accent on the final ee: toh-ray-mah-heee-ah).
The hostel host owns a bar as well, on Avenida Extremadura, but there was a family issue and it was closed that evening, so I sat in the one opposite and had a beer and wrote my notes. Useful info: the supermarket on the same street is shut for a long time between lunch and evening.
I did buy that bottle of wine I had promised myself, and I also invited the man in the above photo, plus a Dutch cyclist new on the scene, to join me. We had some surprisingly entertaining conversation, in divers languages, and it was very enjoyable to sit around the table with fellow travellers again as I had done so often on the Camino Frances.
For some reason the host kindly offered us a free breakfast when his bar reopened the next morning; it provided simple fare with generous portions and friendly service.
Tomorrow would be my last day on this leg of the 1000 kilometer Via de la Plata, so I would have to wait to see Salamanca another time.
Rojo-Plata bar. I had a free breakfast there but did not eat an evening meal https://www.tripadvisor.ie/Restaurant_Review-g7614464-d7986966-Reviews-Restaurante_Albergue_Rojo_Plata-Torremejia_Province_of_Badajoz_Extremadura.html
22nd May 2017. Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Day 7: Zafra to Villafranca de los Barros, in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Badajoz province. 19 kms.
It was already 22 degrees when I left at 6.45am with no breakfast or tea because I could not use the kitchen at the municipal hostel in Zafra. My body had had a good rest and felt better, but not my mind which was busy again trying to puzzle out why life offered me some things and then promptly took them away again.
I passed Spanish farmsteads in the flat brush land, exactly as I imagined Australian ranches. There was honeysuckle and abundant roses in deep pink, red and orange; puppies frolicking, watched and kept in line by the absolute authority of the papa; cats wary of a large bird nearby; and my way was uphill. It was the second cloudy day, although it had cleared late last night, and it was pleasant, cool on my skin. There was a smell of olives and thyme crushed under foot, and the scent of pine added to the pleasure. I saw an almond tree for the first time on this trek.
I compare the two aspects of my life: walking outdoors in this beautiful natural place, and working at home with family and friends in Edinburgh. I had spent the week basically alone, and this sort of retreat was continuing to raise things about being with others or not. I reminded myself I could stop any time.
In her discussion about religion and walking, in Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit describes, ‘…that non-believer’s paradise, nature…’. This rather densetome covers the origin of bipedalism right up to modern day pilgrimage.
There was activity all around me: wheeshts of sparrows, and wooden clagging of storks’ beaks as they stretched their throats and pointed at the sky. The sun was catching the tops of the grasses and there was a large town and farmland spread ahead, with a chemical factory spewing in the distance.
There was a satellite tower on the peak I had reached after the climb, and then I descended through pine trees with rabbits popping up all over, but still no deer. I was an hour from Los Santos de Maimona.
A new house with a solar panel heralded the place I was planning to replenish myself. Another commuter town to Zafra, I guessed, with its BMWs and smart houses. I seemed to have a dreadful tendency to be self-pitying at times. It is a good thing I am walking to balance my earth element which that is related to.
“A young German man expressed it this way: ‘In the experience of walking, each step is a thought, you can’t escape yourself.'” p. 51, Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit.
Thankfully I could not risk missing the signs so that bought me into the present. There was a double bell tower and the familiar, beautifully-kept town square.
Kids were off to school in skinny jeans and trainers, rucksacks and hoodies, with straightened hair, all so familiar from our Scottish children. But what a soulless place it was at 8am, and how very, very hard to find bar.
The search and service took a while, but the tea and tostada con tomate (basically toast with garlic and tomato paste) were good and the women very friendly. I left at 8.30am.
Black pigs were grooming each other which I had not seen before, but otherwise there was more of the same really, day after day walking forward with a pack on my back, trying to understand life, except I was ever fitter and feeling better about myself overall.
Walking is to ‘nourish a profound, fruitful relationship with the self.’ Taken from Christophe Andre’s La Vie Interieure in France Culture magazine.
Two men, each with multiple greyhounds passed me an hour apart.
A huge horse rolled over in the dust, and I was not that different, having to brush away metaphorical flies myself. Doing something repetitive helps you see the differences or similarities between things. Then again, sometimes even the most beautiful views, seen repeatedly, become commonplace.
I thought there were a few pilgrims gaining on me from behind, but it was a man on a tractor on his phone. And ten minutes later there he was again still on the mobile. At 10.30am my day’s destination was sighted, and I was resting under olive branches. Just me, the birds and that tractor.
I crossed the train tracks and a busy road, managing through a semi-rural urban environment, one dusty route in a long uphill haul in the heat. The French couple were there, he having insisted on walking 30 kilometers and she with blisters. I felt for her. Now that I did not have my baton, the woman I met a few days earlier was right, the blood does collect into my hands and they get swollen. I expect the heat does not help. Sometimes I also experienced really sharp pains in different parts of my body, mostly the inside edge of my right foot, but they passed.
‘Pilgrimages make it possible, through the exertions of ones body, step by step, toward those intangible spiritual goals that are otherwise so hard to grasp.’ p. 50 Wanderlust, Rebecca Solnit.
I had read that there was a choice between two albergues and that the far one, the municipal hostel, only had one toilet for everyone, so when I arrived at the edge of the town and immediately found the private albergue, I stopped there.
The nineteen kms took just under 3.5 hours, 4.5 if you count the 1 x 45 and 1 x 15 minute detours/breaks, averaging 5.5 kms per hour, although noting that one is likely to go slower at the end and if it is very hot. If you were chatting that could slow you down too. Today I arrived at noon.
My advice: do not try to find the tourist office or follow the signs as no-one knows where it is but they do kindly guess, sending you off on a wild goose chase every time! In fact, I think it is usually, or used to be, behind the lovely apricot-coloured church next to the police station, and that place is worth visiting because it has good maps and they can stamp your credential (the pilgrim paper for collecting proof of stages attained).
Villafranca is a big, prosperous town with a smart new medical centre and a wide, dry river bed running through the middle. There are lots of shops which do of course shut in the afternoon.
The mercado (market) building rivals one in Madrid, and the bazaar shop has more things crammed into it than I have ever seen, except postcards which was what I was after.
Note: before Monasterio (see previous blog) I had walked from the province of Seville into Extremadura which this blog also covers).
Thankfully my ankle was fine the next morning. It was cloudy at 7am and there had been a strong wind all night. The weather vane on the church swung round to the east – was there something in the air? What with my ankle the previous evening and the breeze, I seemed to be in an inordinately bad temper. I searched for the arrow.
I passed the donkey, patron saint of my blog, then three dogs followed me for a while, and another pilgrim was shuffling resignedly close by.
Four birds were having a spat. Yes, the energy was definitely stirred up.
I settled into a walking meditation. The landscape was as yesterday – arable land, grain silos, the odd goat, a pig squealing, the air was heavy with manure, there were fields of olive trees and, oh no, one hour into the day and I realised I have no stick. I had left it behind. Now I was properly fed up, but it will pass, I told myself, just keep going. Bu…., though.
The spring wheat had been harvested and all was white, green and yellow except for excerpts of swimming pool sky between the clouds, and the odd scarlet poppy amongst the gold. I tried listening to music for a minute, but the birds were singing better songs, so I gave that up again. There was a field of new vines. It will not, I reflected, do me any harm to have less sun – as long it does not rain.
Traipsing through the tiny village of Caldazilla de los Barros, it was impossible not to snap a photo of my brother’s name doubling as a house title, and a beautiful paving detailing the Via de la Plata, the camino I was walking.
I was interested how much difference little stones on the path make to my rhythm, balance, and pace. There was the smell and taste of the fennel plant and seeds to remind me of the Camino Francés last Autumn. They were delicious, and rejuvenating when I was tired.
The hard-baked path was criss-crossed with ants, tufts of grass insinuated their way between apricot, peach-coloured, grey and white stones. The yellow arrows were regular now. I shushed along in the dust, dotted with droppings and patterns of miniature tyres, disturbing the prints of human, horse and dog who had been there before me. The crops spread out towards the horizon on each side.
Sometimes it is helpful to know that what is ahead is 19 kilometers of flat land (despite having no book, I was reading my friend’s blog each night to prepare me for the next day), sometimes not. It was actually comforting to know he had walked it ahead of me.
When walking with a backpack day after day, one day is like the others, but today the path is busier – the Spanish do love their Sunday cycling! The men chatter, chatter as they ride. Then, was that a level crossing ahead?
Yes! There was a town or village, and as I was weary at 11.20am, it was nice to walk into Puebla (village) Sancho Perez and take a coffee/wifi break.(That was accommodation in Madrid sorted! Another kindness from a Shiatsu practitioner I had met in November 2016, who said she was happy to put me up for a night, even though I would arrive late and leave very early the next day for the flight home – lovely Belén, thank you). Interestingly, there is a chapel here called Nuestra Señora de Belén, which has a bullring attached to it. Bit of a coincidence.
At 12.40 I was off again, back over the railway and it was brighter, but still with high winds. There were orange cactus flowers and, oh dear, surely not a blister.
But it was not long (approx. 40 minutes) until I entered Zafra – a much bigger place. Men and women were parading in their Sunday finery and I saw a man with a blue suit and bow tie. It was noticeable that in the streets of the bigger places people behaved differently. They were either too friendly (see Fuente de los Cantos), or not at all (Zafra) which was markedly different from the attitude of the countyside folk I had met.
I arrived at 1pm after a long trek through the city streets to the municipal albergue. The hospitalier was initially rather curious at my solo status, a bit questioning, but the basics were all great, particularly for 8 euros. There was a clean shower off the dorm (just me in a place for 5), although the street was right outside the windows. It also turned out that if I did not purchase breakfast, the kitchen was out of bounds.
Breakfast in the hostels usually consists of white packet-bread, sugary jam, sugary juice, and caffeinated coffee etc. None of these things work very well for my digestion or prepares me adequately for the day’s camino. I asked if I could please use it. ‘Well, bali, between 6 and 8 tonight but not in the morning,’ and ‘Well, ok, you can keep a small bag in the fridge’, he said, ‘if she (the wife) agrees’.
The group of Italians and individual gentlemen also wanted to use the kitchen in the evening, most peregrinos do, and there was a delightful courtyard (with flowers and attractive old walls) which would have lent itself well to a large group meal. But the bonhomie was private and reserved for those speaking the same language as each other.
Later, when I got into conversation with the couple (they had no English), it became clear that they lived here (it was their personal kitchen, absolutely spic and span), and this was their livelihood. They obviously cared well for the place, albeit they doubted we would reciprocate. Perhaps they had had bad experiences in the past with other pilgrims, although I was unaware of that sort of behaviour. It turned out that the woman’s pride and joy was the garden, and I can talk gardens, so we bonded over that and she enthusiastically gave me some seeds to take home for my mum.
Tourist info page Puebla de Sancho Perez: http://turismoextremadura.com/viajar/turismo/en/explora/Puebla-de-Sancho-Perez-00001/
20.5.17 Monesterio to Fuente de Cantos, on the Via de la Plata Spanish Camino. 22kms – a nice sensible distance to walk after yesterday!
Last night I had wandered around Monesterio, shopping and having a beer, so I knew my way – or I thought I did. I got to the outskirts of town, stood in the middle of the road and scanned for yellow arrows which I had been following, retraced my steps and met a second solo female traveler, Yvette. It was 7.40am. She said I looked so confident that she had been following me! Together we found our way quickly and for the first time I had a companion.
She told me she was Slovakian, and she spoke good English, which was great as I have no Slovak. We established that we shared interests, chatting about complementary medicine and health-related matters, how the body manages stress, and of course why we were walking alone in Southern Spain. There was a good energy and we endeavoured to be mindful of our own body at the same time as sharing the way.
There were cows wearing bells, herds of goats and other animals. We walked past beautiful streams, grand trees, and there was a green peace all around us.
She spoke about the luxury of not having another person’s stuff to process, and we mused that in the past men went to war and many did not return. Now we divorce each other, so either way there are still a lot of women alone at the end of their lives.
In fact she was walking much more slowly than I was as she was not well. I slowed down for a time because of the pleasure of having company, but we agreed to separate after an hour and a half or so, so she could rest more.
Black winged birds with orange caps, and white throats and undersides were singing beside me. The fragrant shrub I had not managed to identify on the internet last night, so still thought of as a sort of broom, repeatedly attracted my attention with its so sweet smell.
After two hours the landscape had changed and there were no trees, although luckily there was a breeze. Quite a few lizards I did not quite see, scarpered at my approach.
I remembered that yesterday when I sat down to eat there was a grasshopper right by my left ear. Listening in this quiet place is one of the great pleasures of the Camino. I reflect that as a therapist I am familiar with listening to others. Attending work supervision, and being with friends enables me to be listened to. When I walk, however, I luxuriate in paying attention to the subtlety of nature and to myself.
I try listening under a tree away from the beating sun, but not for long as my sweaty back gets cold. I eat some sugary cakes to feed my muscles.
Even though I try to avoid ssuashing insects, unfortunately the scuttley spiders seem to change direction just before my foot descends, alerted by the earth moving as I walk towards them. Sadly they are therefore more likely to be stepped on. I spend some time thinking about fear.
I notice ants going up and down a tree – something new to me.
Both Christ and the Buddha walked and meditated. It seems to be something closely related to religion. I think it must be about contemplating ones behaviour and the habits of others, on the meaning of things.
There are empty husks, dry whispering beside me. Are they oats? They rustle and shine white-gold in the sunshine.
How do I know the smell of dust? It blows around me. Over and over again I breathe it in without noticing, until I recognise that it is the dust which smells like that, not the other things which we are there simultaneously. It is the same way I can smell snow in the air back home, and people are surprised. I think my father taught me to focus on smelling, as it was something he really appreciated. Despite being a smoker, he really enjoyed sniffing the roses at dusk, or inhaling the gentle scent of a child’s hair.
The grasshoppers, they were loud, louder, really loud as I got closer, and then their noise subsided and tailed off as I ambled on. It was the opposite and slower version of standing by a motorway as cars zoom past me.
I reminded myself that I do always know that I will get there eventually. I thought I must still be tired from yesterday if I needed reminding like that.
A tiny bird balanced on one ear of corn.
Where the trees were, I sat with my feet in the water to cool, and I listened and watched. I took my top off for airing. Then, when I was ready to go, Yvette came by and we found we had more things in common. We made plans to meet that evening before I toddled on. What a happy, golden corn, blue sky sort of a day it was.
Entering the near deserted town.
The last hour was really hard, hard work in the heat, and I stumbled off the edge of a pavement in Fuente de Cantos and twisted my ankle which was not at all like me. But round the corner was a patisserie with its sweet sugar smell, and a few doors up was an oasis. It did not look much from the road, but this was not the municipal albergue, rather, one I had seen advertised on the road. In fact I had picked up the last leaflet.
I wondered if I was in the right place because it looked like heaven. The door was open so I wandered through the great entrance hall into the courtyard. I sat by the fountain. I admired my surroundings. Of course I started to take photos, when out popped a man and offered me a drink. Most kind. So I had a seat (although I was very sweaty, in the 30 degree heat), and heard the water burbling and allowed the flowery aromas to waft around me, and exhaled.
What a find! I was, yes, you guessed it, the only person there, so I had the whole place to myself. Including the swimming pool which was great water therapy for my ankle. Of course, I had sent my bathing costume home on day 1, so it had to be underwear, but then again there was no-one to see me. Well only the owner and his dad pottering about the place. Oops!
I did walk out later to get some messages (used in Scotland to mean shopping) and it was a dusty and extremely hot walk to the edge of town to the supermercado. I visited the convent turned hostel which the others were staying in, both to see it and meet Yvette, but unfortunately she was nowhere to be seen, and I never saw her again. I did bump into the English cyclist who I had passed yesterday. He was looking for the post office to send his guitar home. He said he did not find that he had a need for it.
Shots of the town.
A glass or two of wine; the view from where I stayed; a lovely Madonna tile; and not everywhere was as smart.
There was a museum at the albergue, full of baskets, old farm machinery, and knick knacks. Fascinating.
Places to rest and recuperate as the temperature slowly cooled.
The downstairs bathroom and ceiling of the dormitory – all really attractively decorated.
Fuente de Cantos was the home of Francisco de Zurbarán (1598-1664), so I visited the museum. Not my cup of tea, but what a cutting figure he made!
19.5.17 day 4 Almaden de la Plata, through El Real, to Monesterio, on the Via de la Plata Spanish Camino. 35kms – crazy!
The Christmas lights were on in Almaden as I left the town after an over-confident decision to make a double day’s walking. It had actually been cold in the night and was cooler than normal as I walked out this morning. I wondered if it was because of the altitude.
So, in my last blog I noted that the east-west route for today was clear from the top of the hill, and I knew which side of me the sun should be. But, I was distracted by the goats and made a major mistake, the worst I have ever made in terms of time spent going in the wrong direction. I did not take the option on the left. If it is dark, fellow walkers, be careful! Note to self: I have to be extra watchful in mornings.
I had wanted to get a head-start: uncomfortably my competitve streak seemed to be coming out. I knew I was walking towards the rising sun, and that I should be going east to west, but I also thought I was right. However, just look! the mist was coming off the glassy water just as if it was an Enid Blyton magical pool.
Having reset my course, I continued on through this area of outstanding natural beauty, heading towards the Sierra Norte. There were sheep bells tinkling all around me (idyllic, I know), and I saw one of those huge black and white birds standing as still as if it was waiting until it understood what the world was all about.
I realise, however, that when you walk alone, you get the autonomy but no support.
The same birds as yesterday were ‘boh boh’, answering each other across the path in the early morning sunshine.
Walking, for me, is all about doing the work of sorting things out. The same themes of loneliness and relationships were on my mind this morning.
Yes, I knew I should have been heading , in that direction, but the little voice inside my head had to get very loud before I stopped and retraced my steps. It is something I have always hated doing, going back on myself. Is it because of the time and energy lost or what?
There were a whole lot more animals here than I had seen on the rest of the journey put together. Curly horned goats were eating voraciously, and pigs, sheep, chickens and even one lone peregrino.
Not that I was giving myself a hard time, but I do belive that it was a matter of the tortoise and the hare: I had been impetuous and mind-less, and, interestingly, it happened on a day when I had decided to do twice as many kilometers.
Anyway, I was going slowly, and without a doubt the smell had changed as the sun warmed the world up. There was more to sniff overall, less subtle, and, well, the beasts were ….pungent.
The rich, deep orange, red, and brown soil was so hard and so full of rocks, the drought had made great cleaves in it.
Time: there is simply getting through it, and just managing it. And then there is racing. This walk is supposed to be about sampling every moment and being in the world, being in place, so to speak, so that I can see what is around me in glorious technicolor. That is what I have given myself the opportunity to do.
Then from stage left, out of the scrub, comes the first solo peregrina, a woman also walking on her own. I nod hello and get no response so I leave her to herself.
Immediately I came across a huge flock of goats, tucked against the fence and around the gate, and guarded by one, no, two dogs. All was peaceful munching, dozing, and baa-ing. I moved through the throng, and was about to do the right thing and close the gate, when I picked up a change in energy and heard the goats starting to bleat, and then I saw that the dogs were on their feet. I looked and the female walker behind me was obviously scared. Her fear was transmitting to the animals – she was frozen.
I went back and accompanied her out and tried various languages to communicate, but she seemed to speak none of them, so I left her to her own pace and went on.
I reflect that this walking lark is a test of how I cope with thinking on my feet, how I deal with obstacles such as metal gates, goats or water blocking the way.
Pools of unfathomable beauty were reflective and languid. They made me want to stop and sit for ever.
In the middle of the park was the village of El Real, at 11am. It was a short stage of 15.5 kilometers, but tricky, especially if you get lost, are older, or have blisters.
But I did stop for a green tea (some of you will not be surprised), and some of my pack lunch, and the group of Italians I had originally been ahead of, and who obviously did not get lost, were there too.
The little village had a good array of shops, and I was able to buy bread and a few other things I needed. All in all, it was a necessary and welcome hiatus.
Then I was off again, up the steep hill and back into open country. There was a little queue of us, well spread out, and it was already very hot.
It was a long arduous climb, one that would have been at the beginning of the day rather than the hot middle, if I had slept at that place. Yesterday there was a short but very steep one and I was aware of my breathing as I climbed. Today it went on longer and I could feel my heart beating too.
I see the Buddha all around me sitting under trees as he was reputed to do.
The buzzing of a spaghetti junction of pylons as I walked under it helped raise my Ki at GV20, but if it happened for too long, I reckoned, the Yin would turn to Yang.
Then a different type of buzzing: frogs which I was told was grenouille by a French man imparting knowledge as he happened to pass by. He was going so fast he would not have noticed if I had not stopped him and his wife to delightedly point the noise out. I had been sitting silently having my snack and listening to their songs.
On through the Sierra Norte I walked, finding it hard without a guidebook to help me on my way. Looking down, I realised that, in this part of the world, even ants have shadows. I thought I would make that the name of my travel book if I ever write one. What do you think?
I move through a landscape of trees, wild flowers, and a mountain herd of cows, all a rich brown with horns and swishing tails. There were calves and two men on horseback herding them through. Seemed a peculiarly Spanish scene.
There was bullfighting on the tv in the cafe where I sat the night before last. In front of dignitaries, the waistcoats of the matadors were splendid, and their magenta swathes of cloaks were no doubt admired as swash-buckling, but I had to leave: it was devastating to watch.
I gave thanks for the wind.
I passed the man who ate tinned peas and carrots for tea and tinned fruit salad for breakfast as he sat by the roadside contemplating an empty can. I thought how it must be so heavy to carry them all.
Kilometer after kilometer I trek, the yellow fragrant broom-type plant making my path fragrant.
After the lovely Sierras the air is full of industrial noise, an acrid smell in my nose, and what with the searing heat and dust, and the fact that the Extremadura Road sign tells me I have a further 10kms to go, I am somewhat down-hearted.
How much better than the motorway, though still I have to admit it is really hard going.
There are little signposted paths, but you must look hard for some of them and there are almost dangerous parts, presumably to avoid the motorway. It was so very hot by now, and I took frequent tiny breaks. I think one of them was where I left my water bottle 😦
Why did I choose to do this long etape? I inevitably ask myself.
And then, at last, I was at the first roundabout of what turned out to be a largeish town: Monesterio. That is something worth noting: if you do not have a book, nor able to use the internet, you do not know whence you are heading, and it is therefore always a surprise – in my case always a good one!
Once again, there was a long walk to the municipal albergue, an ex-convent, and it was not at all straightforward. Up half of the cowboy-film-style main street I went – the sign directed me to the left – and through the small streets I wound, asking people if I saw any, although it was all but deserted at this hour, tracing and retracing my steps until I arrived.
The lone Italian woman was next door, we shared a bathroom, which flooded at the easiest opportunity, and she was not happy with any of it.
There was a large courtyard out the back, I really mean huge, which as far as I could tell belonged to another building. At the top of a tower which I could see from my bedroom, there was a gigantic nest, but there were no birds visible.
Do you know what? In the kitchen there was a machine which dispensed tea bags. Never seen anything like it. It even had green tea!
Day 3, 18.5.17. Via de la Plata camino walk, Castilblanco de los Arroyos to Almadén. 29.5 kms.
On and off through the night I was shaken from my dreams by snoring, but as I know I ‘give as good as I get’, I could not complain. Later I was woken by my alarm and was the first up. I did try to be careful, indeed I had prepared everything the night before so I could creep out silently, but I forgot I had emptied my pockets and as I moved my clothes I dropped all the coins. They rolled loudly and far on the tiled floor – what a racket!
After breakfast, I set off confidently, but down and back I went looking for the arrows to show me the way, and I lost the time I had gained from rising early.
The others were up and out, probably woken by my noise, and so I thankfully followed them. As I walked my head was full of questions.
I compared the luminous yellow arrows with the luminous sunny morning. There was no comparison! How does the sun pick out the edges of each leaf, as well as ripples of old bark, which has no shiny surface, and make them gleam?
I hoped that I had built up enough strength during the previous two days for the 30 kilometers ahead of me, and that I would not therefore have to use super-human, prodigious will power. Ah, there was a thrilling bird voice – was it encouraging and reassuring me?
It was day three of being on my own. Would I be content to be a hermit or enter one of those retreats like Tenzin Palmo? If I am alone so often anyway, maybe. Then again, like most others I enjoy companionship. It is all about balance.
”..the walk is solitary and rural, a means of being in nature and outside society.’ p. 18 Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust
I moved between tarmac and softer gravel, along a bed of dry, brown leaves from last year – it is kinder on my soles. I hear French spoken behind me. It is crisper and much less passionate than Spanish. Later I meet the couple and exchange a while. He does most of the talking and was indeed a crisp sort of person.
Then a tandem passed me – him with his long back in blue and black, she behind in pink, legs circling of course, in exact time with each other. ‘Buen camino!’ A little further on they get off and walk up the hill, and I realise I have been steadily climbing. There is a long, spider-legged peregrino in front of me, an older man without all the gear behind, and the wheeled couple coast down the other side.
The walls I trekked between were white and had decorated name plates outside, even the ordinary ones. They have plants in the type of pots you might expect a genie to whisp out of, and they adorn the gatehouse, while the road stretches in to the land behind. It was much hotter by this time, even at 9am. My right hip bothered me a little with the climbing. Crunchy old acorns littered the ground.
At 10.10am I enter the Parque Natural de Sierra Norte and am off road. The two French people were in front.
I take my first pee of the morning – oh to be able to stand up and do it like men! Next time I will wear those shorts which you can just pull up and down easily. It is a real struggle to squat with the money belt and rucksack, and then try and do buttons once standing up again. After repetitively walking a long way, bending the knees is hard, although having said that, it is probably good to keep them lithe. A bird sings ‘pee pee pee’!
I wonder about listening to music as I go along. Alain, who I walked with on the Camino Francés, used to play songs and sing to me, it was a way of getting to know each other. I try, but after a few moments I stop. I like to hear the sounds around me and potter along at my own pace not to the song rhythms. My head is full enough as it is.
‘Never did I think so much, exist so vividly, and experience so much, never have I been so much myself – if I may use that expression – as in the journeys I have taken alone and on foot.’ Rousseau, Discourses on Inequality.
Lunch was at 10.40 and what a cacophony of toads down in the stream. Such beauty.
There were soft, soft, fine grasses curving over in the mild breeze, black olive trunks contrasted with swathes of yellow flower heads and hopefully, I mused, I was over half way to Almadén.
I remember trying to pick up my pace but my feet were sore and my ankles stiff. I obviously was not yet into the swing of this amount of daily walking. A bird kept saying ‘bo bo boh’, one with a largish orange-brown breast and a black and white tail. At least I thought that was the one which belonged to that particular call. It can be hard to identify them.
There were long, oblong stone troughs for feeding the animals, white-pink stones rather than crystal quartz, very tall trees reminiscent of the ones next to the albergue roof terrace last night. I had watched the leaves meditatively spinning whilst doing my T’ai Chi.
Banks of lavender fell down hillside, which when squeezed released a potent and wonderful aroma.
As far as the eye could see there was only trees and nature and natural sounds: I climbed over some water, admired the lollipop pines and inhaled their resiny smell. It all prompted me to take deep breaths.
And in good time, because there followed a very, very steep, though thankfully relatively short, climb of 550 metres. Half way up was a memorial to a dead pilgrim (Michel Laurent) which seemed appropriate given the gradient. Many people walk the Caminos at the end of their life or because they are unwell and some do die on the way.
At the top there were three of us and we gave thanks for the cooling wind. I was excited to see the end in sight as well as tomorrow’s path running east to west on the slope opposite. That was to be rather important information the next morning.
It was the first town or village I had set eyes on since 6.30am, 6.5 hours ago, and although it was also a very, very steep topple down, and I had to take enormous care because of the boulders and sheer rocks, the reward was at the bottom.
In Almadén, on the church tower, were 5 of the huge black and white cranes which I had seen in Northern Spain.
Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust. ISBN 978-1-78378-0-396
15th July – today. 30 or so minutes outside Valencia surrounded by the Sierra Calderona hills.
Just over 6 months after my first visit, I am lucky enough to return to house sit for Georgie, Phil and family.
The cafe on this Saturday morning is full of noise and colour. Like trees full of tropical birds, flocks of male cyclists are in vibrant lycra, one making ear-piercing whistles to attract his friend’s attention. They are stocking up on coffee before hurtling through the Sierra on their bikes.
Young boys learning to be their fathers, pose on smaller cycles in neon orange T-shirts and bright yellow shorts further up the streets.
Older women in black tops and floaty-hemmed skirts pad to market in sandals, clutching a purse, and returning with a white carrier bag, baguette poking out of the top. Some wear pinnies over their polka dots. These casual clothes are in contrast to the black elegance of last night’s singers, accessorised as they were with white pearls and corsages. I recognise the matriarch who wore a see-through chemise for the concert. She has replaced it with a practical jumpsuit.
A delegation of men and women errupt onto the street dressed also in black, and also with neon orange, this time over their shoulders and with Proteccion Civil Naquera, Proteccio Civil Valencia or Olocau on the back, depending on whether it is written in Castilian or Valenciana I presume. Trousers tucked into boots, they delicately suspend their cigarettes between fore and middle fingers, and traipse back and forth between cashpoint, cafe and bakery. I thought they might be traffic wardens as I have seen similar groups in Edinburgh when they start their rounds at 8am, but no, they are trainee lay people, a force to assist the police in their official duties. They carry only walkie-talkies around their waists, not guns. Both male and female saunter, hips leading at a very relaxed pace – perhaps they are taught to walk like that.
The market is in the square opposite the church. My eye is immediately drawn to the eco- stall and I bought some seaweed flakes to sprinkle on my salad.
They also have gleaming sunshine in tiny bottles of lemon or tomato-infused olive oil.
The stall holder sells Portobello mushrooms so I tell him I live near there, in Edinburgh. This information seems to please him: in English he regales how he has never been to Scotland but, with a smile on his face, that he will visit when he grows up, when he has more experience! (I am guessing he is around 60 years old.) He says he was in love with Chrissie Hynde (the lead singer and founder member of the Pretenders, who lived in South Queensferry, just outside Edinburgh), and thought Simple Minds were great. Later, when I was queueing at the place opposite, he came over and played me their music on his phone. I find the Spanish delightful.
There are two fruit and veg stands: one presided over by a woman in thin denim who keeps a close eye on who is next, gives me a soft yellow plum to try, then takes one herself and laughs as the juice escapes down her smock.
A quieter man serves at the other one. He gives me a handful of cherries, and I buy potatoes, almonds, and a fig for a treat.
The patroness of the patisserie / panaderia (cake and bread shop) struggles to understand my Spanish as I foolishly attempt to ask if the bread has anything extra in it, like olives, because it resembles that sort of loaf in the UK. Why do I try such things?
Although I only arrived 2 days ago, I am greeted by fellow choir members from last night’s performance – some with kisses on each cheek, others with ‘Que tal?’ (how are you?), or ‘buen dia’ (literally, good day). Everyone is so friendly to me.
There is always a large screen in cafes here. This one has silent rappers in caps making their secret sign-language.
Palm trees line the main street, edged mostly with older properties in pale yellow and whitewash, though some are more modern. Pavements and cobbled streets look well kept, apparently mended during the recession as the ‘ayuntamiento’, (town council) attempted to keep men in work. The village is clean and smart with ornate balconies, bulging at the bottom, and matching window bars at street level.
There are decorated eaves made of terracotta or white plaster, and the blind covers someone’s front door to minimise the heat.
As the church bell sounds, I look up and see that the roof tiles are made up of columns and rows of arcs like endless ‘mmmms’. If I listen, I fancy I can hear humming from choirs of ages past.
Cliffs provide a craggy backdrop to the north end: strata of pale pink rock interspersed with the sort of plants that obviously do not need much soil (see the church picture above). To the south are softer tree-covered slopes. There is no doubt that Olocau is right in the middle of this popular natural park.
A woman lifts her skirts to point out the mosquito bites to her friend, who responds by showing hers.
There is a burst of Barry White which must contravene all laws concerning sound levels, followed by a cascade of Spanish I cannot understand. This is repeated – in case I did not get it the first time?
The Spanish tongue rolls and bubbles, like waves at the beaches edge. Words I recognise punctuate: ‘claro’ (stress the aah in the middle, means absolutely), ‘genial’ (say henial, lovely). Luckily they have expressive eyes and often gesture dramatically, which might be for my benefit or for the fun of it, I am not sure. Where I fail to communicate my English sense of humour to the French, the Spaniards seems to share it. With naughty smiles, their voices pick up speed and timbre as they chuckle wickedly together over village stories.
Fans are constantly a-flutter. Sue (my rescuer) tells me that the houses are cool in summer, here in the tight streets where the sun does not shine on them, so the women find it hot when they come outside.
The Valencians take pride in their music, offering free classical concerts in Olocau, really a small community, every Saturday night through July. Not just that, it also boasts a music school of its own which prepares kids for the Conservatoire, a choir and a band. Emma, the talented and lively singing leader, tells me that nearby Lliria is famous for its wind players, and we thoroughly enjoy the evening concert. A quintet consisting of flute, oboe, horn, clarinet and bassoon, enchants us with Mozart, a medley by Bizet, plus the more unusual Muczinsky and a Piazolla I had not heard before, to end with. In the middle of the Rossini the town church just over the wall struck midnight, but it did not deter them.
Just part of one of my days here in this beautiful place.
Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Guillenna to Castilblanco de los Arroyos. 18 kms. 38 degrees heat on arrival.
There was a crescent moon high over Guillena as I left, happy in the cool air at 6.15am. There were already birds singing and the cats and kittens were skittering around the deserted village, scouting the bins and very nervous of me. There was that Spanish smell: a mix of plants, food, perhaps even the building materials – very hard to describe. The cock was heralding the dawn of my next stage. As I walked I felt really happy, happier and happier, and the kittens did their tree climbing practice while their mum looked on.
If I had walked past here extending the kilometers covered, as the Germans did yesterday, to the next town or even further, I would have missed this. As it was I was refreshed and ready for the journey. I realised that I was only wearing a T shirt and yet the temperature was very pleasant. The only clouds bordered the horizon.
I traversed the River de Huelva, bats flying around me, and ah! I remembered that I had left my food in the hostel fridge again. Mental note to self for tomorrow. I hoped it would be enjoyed by others.
My camera could not see the sunrise the way my eyes could. I rehearsed the description in my mind so I could try and conjure it up for you later: the colours of course – red and blue at the top, a stippled layer of dark purple underneath pale yellow, under pink – not like anything reproduced in fabric or paint. And all this above a silhouetted horizon of palm trees, like pineapples on sticks. The top edges of ordinary farm or industrial buildings stretched right across my vision, pulling my gaze towards my destination away from the hedgerow. That sillouette got stronger and stronger as I walked the long stretch of road, and as always on the outskirts of towns, there were very few arrows to guide me.
And then it lightened.
I came to an industrial area by the main road intersection. My mind was mostly quiet except for the mini-panics over finding the way. I passed by a blue, white and yellow warehouse. Behind it there was a lot of rubbish littering the deserted tarmac – similar to yesterday on the outside of Seville – and there was an air of danger. I am not religious, but I felt as if the cross which hung around my neck given to me by Pedro the night before I left was protecting me. Perhaps his wish for me to have a safe journey was imbued into it.
I was prepared for difficulties because there was no translation of the website directions last night so I had nothing to go by, but after an hour I came to farm land, across a dry river bed, and there were the wonders of nature laid out before me.
My Shiatsu and its theory is always with me and I muse: I guess all of us who love to walk, feet on the ground, have to be balancing our Earth element, so then it follows that worry can be a normal thing for us, and the walking helps with that worry. There’s a rabbit! And bees collecting. My thoughts are interrupted by what surrounds me.
Soft grasses stroked my arm. The warming sun released the smells which changed from a damper, cool, morning green smell, to an earthier, warmer, sweet brown smell, and then to the searing fiery red emanating from the soil which has absorbed so much sun over so long. The track stretched straight into the distance and now I could see that there was one pilgrim ahead of me and 3 Italians behind. I had spoken to one the night before as we both had some French. There was a Spaniard with a stout stick and an Alsatian dog coming in the opposite direction. I needed to choose my footing carefully, picking my way across the very stony, pinky-brown earth with olive groves on one side, and crops on the other. Each had a narrow strip of flowers and grasses where the pesticide had not killed them.
I kept asking myself why I walk. Maybe to prove myself to myself, to learn to be with myself without judgment, so I can do that with others? The quieter I am, the more accurately I hear, and then I know things before they happen. I mean, when I am attentive, things come into my mind before they take place outside of me, and so I am not surprised by them when they happen. I am pleased with this. It releases some of the anxiety, but it is still new to me, and unfamiliar. I believe that this sixth sense is one of the things babies have but then lose, getting replaced with fear. I am trying to unlearn the fear.
‘A walk was her answer to everything. It was her way of saying she did not want to talk.’ p. 190 The Words In My Hand, Guinevere Glasfurd
I heard amazing bird song and it is so hard to put into words. Some songs are simple, one or two notes, others start with one, but complete with a different rhythm altogether, however they did repeat, as if they were giving me lots of chances to understand what they were ‘saying’.
Ahead was a wonderful sight – a tiny castle in the distance amongst a huge field of sunflowers.
Another thing which happens as I walk is that memories surface, triggered, I suppose, by things I see or other thoughts. Today I was thinking a lot about my mum and I, when we were in Menorca many years ago. Maybe she was thinking about that too.
I had entered the natural park which signaled the start of the Sierra Norte and the Cortijo del Chaparral with its terracotta earth pathways. It was still flat, though, and I was heading in the direction of Castilblanco de los Arroyos.
Glimpses of last night’s dreams floated frustratingly in and out of consciousness. I reflected that part of this happiness was knowing that I had set off at good hour so that if anything went wrong there was time to put it right.
There were more thoughts and observations, and then I returned to the walking, my breath, the feeling of my feet and core. There was the odd ‘hola’ to hard working farmers as I walked. I must have been losing fluids because I was regularly tightening my rucksack straps. (It must fit me snugly to avoid back and shoulder ache.)
A group of men who were working hard in the fields, miles from each other but still managing to converse, did not notice me passing until I was gone. Then they unfolded, absent-mindedly curious. Someone was hand-pruning a peach orchard. Here were pregnant long-horned cows and rabbits in among the olives, and I heard a new bird call: a hoot coming in 2s and 3s that was being responded to in kind from who knows where.
One bird screeched, its long tail beating up and down. It was collecting from the ground and doing a sort of bouncy hopping from 2 feet to 2 feet, right alongside the rabbits, taking scraps to the excited babies in its nest. One bird daringly swooped in festoons from tree to tree, brushing past my head. There was lavender, rosemary and sharp cistus bushes, with sage too, and later a pungent like-sweet peas type of fragrance.
It was rocky with lots of yellow arrows. My advice if you are walking this way? if you have not seen one in the last 5 minutes, retrace your steps. I was tempted by the sounds of fellow travellers and immediately took a wrong turn, but one turned out to be the first Brit I had come across, a cyclist with good advice. He ‘buen camino-ed’ me from a distance later, unsure for some reason whether I spoke in English, and that little exchange changed my energy. I saw him again, once, and he was looking for a post office to send back his guitar. He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time, but actually it was a nuisance on the bike and unused.
Varied mental antics: The ants hurried along in opposite directions. There was a buzz of pylons as I passed underneath that sent my brain fizzing. I was so glad that I did not add this to yesterday’s walk in what was a 38 degrees heat at the end of a 35 km walk. I am so often hungry, I wondered if perhaps I was starving in another life. The solo peregrino who I thought was behind me, passed as I sat quietly on a rock and ate my pear. I was using Bill Palmer’s concept of buoyant / full organs to keep my solar plexus open, in contrast to the curled-forwards posture of the everyday backpacker. There were butterflies galore, some almost black. I thought, remember! our words live on inside others, so take care with them, take responsibility.
I make the least imprint on the earth I think, walking like this, compared with bikes, cars, trains and planes, and I hope I give lots back in return for the joy I am getting.
In case you get lost after leaving the park, you turn left into the road, cross over and there is a path through the undergrowth on the other side. It has to be eyes down for the arrows.
Once I got back into my stride, I thought, walking the Caminos suits those with a strong sense of behaving correctly, because when you walk alone you please yourself.
If it is early when you arrive in Castilblanco (11.30am), do as others do and and sit outside the first bar you come to, because the albergue opens at 1pm.
So I went for some food. And after all, why should they serve what their English version menu offers? Especially if they have gone through it with you beforehand, explaining what they do and do not have, and showing you that the reason they do not have the fried anchovies is because it is not on the Spanish side, see? And you explain, ‘sin carne / no meat’ (ah, yes, I remembered the way this went!), and the first thing they brought (when I ordered chickpea salad) was meat stew, and then I reminded him that I did not eat meat, and he said, ‘what, not chorizo?’ and so he offered spinach salad. And after a long time a delicious spinach and chickpea curry arrived with fried bread. And I definitely did not say, ‘but you said there was no spinach’. And it all went beautifully with the red wine.
The ‘pilgrim’s menu’, much later in the evening honest, was 8€. The calamares (squid) came the way I expected it to. That was one reason why I asked for it. I thought it would be simpler. Why do I insist on speaking in Spanish when he has some English and my Spanish is so limited?
The hospitalier was charming. The albergue / hostel doubles up as a day centre for people with disabilities and there is space out the front to sit and watch the world go by. The dorms are upstairs and follow the usual format – everything is provided for washing self and clothes, for sleeping, and preparing food, and it was spic and span.
In 3 hrs my washing was dry, even the thick stuff, and by then the roof terrace tiles were too hot to walk on. It was decorated and full of others, congenially chatting in multiple languages.