Via de la Plata Camino – Day 1, Spain

Beginning the Via de la Plata from the start this time. Seville to Guillenna, 25 kms. 16.5.17

Jésus kindly dropped me off at a very early hour, still dark, to begin the Via de la Plata in the city of Seville, in deep southern Spain.

Negotiating my way out of town I see a beautiful doorway, the flash of my camera lighting it up. What lies through the metaphorical portal for me at the start of this camino?

All the Spanish caminos have Santiago de Compostella as their final destination. I had completed the Camino Francés in late November 2016 and fancied continuing to walk, so started the VDLP (as it is known in ‘the club’!) from the end, in the direction of Seville where everyone else starts it. In fact it was very tricky to negotiate the signs and arrows going backwards, so I only did 10 days or so and promised myself I would recommence from the beginning. And here I was, 5 months later!

It was actually pitch dark at 6.15am except for the parts with streetlights.

‘He gathered these details as he walked, and he could not have gathered them had he not opened himself to the kinds of encounter and perception that travel on foot makes possible. Walking, Lee notes, refines awareness: it compels you to ‘tread’ a landscape ‘slowly’ to ‘smell its different soils.’ The car-passenger by contrast, ‘races at gutter height, seeing less than a dog in a ditch’. Lee, like Leigh Fermor, believed in walking not only as a means of motion but also as a means of knowing..’. taken from Robert Macfarlane’s introduction to ‘As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning’ by Laurie Lee.

Camino de Santiago is carved down the right hand side of this stone marker at the edge of the bypass.

Like Laurie Lee, I had travelled across Spain,  unlike him I had spent one day in fast cars (Zaragoza – Madrid – Seville), and so I resonated with the above quote. I was so very glad to have my feet back on the ground and be moving at what felt like my natural pace again.

And of course I got lost as usual, attempting to find my way away from the urbanisation. Seville is a beautiful place, but my heart lies in the rural landscape and I was keen to move on there. The birds, my constant companions, were wide awake. I trundled through wasteland searching for the yellow arrows – scouring the edges of benches, trunks of trees, discovering one wrapped around a lamp post, and another on a motorway bridge underpass.

These photos are in order along the path.

My advice to fellow travellers: everyone knows the way, ask, and/or wait patiently for a sign.

Do not go too fast, look back so you get sights of the sprawl you are leaving behind.

And if, like me, you have left before dawn, you will have the added bonus of seeing the sky lighten gradually at your back.

Like many parts of all the caminos, the outskirts of cities and large towns are less than salubrious, but because I was so excited, and have been practicing appreciation of all that is around me, there is beauty if you look in the right way.

I was not really going that fast, but there were 3 Germans walking out at the same time as me, and they went ‘like the clappers’. I needed to keep up with them, so I thought, because they were so confident, but it was not my natural speed and there was not enough time to take focused photos. I have kept it in as a record of the route.

I was hastening to keep up and did not take the time to stop long enough to focus.
Crossing the River Guadalquivir further up.

There were trees laden with oranges (no photos) lining the streets, and I kept on going straight.

Racing Germans speeding ahead.
And horses tethered by the roadside. I was to see many of them as I made my way north. Good, free grazing.
Another dreadfully blurred photo, not for show, but for those following the route as well.
It is an exercise in appreciation of the industrial.
Sun all but up now.
We all 4 lost our bearings here. We asked someone who, most unusually, sent us the wrong way.
Hints now of things to come. See the yellow and white decorations on the church with a flat bell tower?

I dashed into a cafe for a take-away croissant (no breakfast – very stupid – I never learn), and promptly lost the others. I panicked thinking I would never find the way on my own, so I ran to catch up. Ran! It is no fun with a backpack I can tell you.

Gave the casino a miss though.
More motorway.
Dull weather.
But at least I was starting to see a view of the countryside and not just railings and dual carriageways.
Before I left, Pedro dealt me a card for the journey. It was ‘Amistad’ meaning friendship. When I came across this around 8am, it seemed like an auspicious sign.

The unmistakeable sound of a peacock heralded my arrival in Santiponce, 7km from Seville, after two hours. One of the richest artistic and cultural heritages in Andalusia, it is sited on the banks of the River Gualdaquivir, which suffered several floods. One caused its surviving inhabitants to take refuge in the monastery (see below), which then granted the highest land for the safe re-building of the town as it is now.

I searched for the squawk. It was on the roof, silhouetted against the morning sky.
I do not know what tree these seed pods come from, but I liked the shape and colour against the cracked earth.
Early morning sweeping in her pinny. Seemed like a classic Spanish sight somehow.

There were more orange trees and the sun was trying its hardest. I have to say that after yesterday’s scorcher, I was rather glad that it was not as hot, given it was my first day back on the road with the rucksack and all.

Beautiful though isn’t it? The ex-Monastery of San Isidoro del Campo, founded in 1301, on the edge of the town.

A very attractive place, Santiponce.

I took a detour to see the Roman Theatre but it was shut. Only open in the summer (I guess May is not the summer) for performances. The nearby Tourist Information was very helpful though and it had lovely clean toilets.

The Roman Theatre.
Attractive detail on the main street.
I just love pink houses.
And the famous Seville oranges. People were picking them up off the street and eating them.

The Anfiteatro de Italica opens at 9am and one of my favourite blog writers recommended seeing it (see end of page), so I sat and ate an orange, listened to the birds, and rested my back until I could get in.

Wish my dad had been with me to see this.

So very old.
The amphitheatre itself – I could almost hear the bellowing of the crowd.
And feel the fear of the gladiators.

There were gardeners planting and tending red roses, just like characters from Alice in Wonderland. But it was hard to rest and enjoy when I knew there were miles to go. So I rejoined the Way and the flora and fauna.

An hour from Santiponce and it was starting to get hot. The smell of a jam factory meant I was headed back into an industrial area, and a massive motorway junction followed.

Not great.
At least I knew I was well on my way now. No need for anyone to guide me.

And after a little while I was rewarded with beautiful wild flowers – azure cornflower, cow parsley like big white iced buns with a beetle instead of a cherry on top, silver grey thistles, reeds, irregularly shaped fields of wheat – green and pale yellow, as well as pylons and traffic sounds competing with the birds.

Avenues of plane trees.

I was on my way again – this was what I waited for.

Thought it was a beetle in the middle, then I realised they all had them and that it was a seed.

The path was stony and my feet were getting sore.

The plants were undulating in the welcome breeze.

What were those yellow flowers in the distance?
Looks pretty but this flooding on the path was somewhat challenging to manoeuvre.

Piles of ants descend on scraps. Their diagonal queues dissect the path and I try to avoid them. Birds play together in the breeze.

Ah, that’s what they are! Turning their heads as they follow the sun around, like submarine periscopes. Beautiful vertical rays of brightness.
The backs of the sunflowers like bonnets, their faces all to the sun, hiding the fact that each one is swarming with bees.

More flowers: Bindweed and borage. I was totally alone. There were no words except the occasional ‘buen camino’ to and from cyclists flying past, shoulders up to their ears. Now I was able to breathe in time with my walking steps. To notice the new butterfly, pale green with a splash of yellow and just a few black dots like Kandinsky, beautifully blended with the flower colours. I saw a dragon fly. I felt happy.

‘Walking itself is the intentional act closest to the unwilled rhythms of the body, to breathing and the beating of the heart’. Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit p.5.

It was a lesson in endurance though. When you are tired, you look into the distance and never believe you will ever get there, but you do. And it is joyous, my arrival into Guilenna.

‘Bienvenido’ = welcome.

Except there were was quite a way before I really arrived. White houses with terracotta roofs greeted me at the end of the very dusty road. It turns out I should have gone over the bridge, not round the river. I should have known when I found myself climbing over fences! The yellow arrows were once again hard to see.
Here was the prettiest church ever seen.

Iglesia Nuestra Señora de la Granada.

The first hostel was shut and I had to ask many women before I finally arrived at Hostel La Luz at 12.15 and it was 25 degrees by that time. The lady at reception was lovely, friendly, and informative. I was the first to arrive and had a dorm to myself next to the small courtyard, on the ground floor. The facilities were basic but fine for me, I had everything I needed.

I had decided to send things back to the UK (no use for my swimming things, or so I thought) to lighten my load and, well, maybe it was a bad day, and of course I was very fatigued, but the post office was so, so slow. I sat and waited, watched and listened to the excitable Spanish conversations, and eventually it was my turn and of course it was a simple thing to do, not very expensive, and I sent some post cards as well. I rested and then needed to go out again for food – what a very long main road it was in the 28 degree heat at 5pm, or in fact 35 degrees depending where you looked (phone or electronic sign in the town).

I went to mass in the evening, well the start of it. Inside it was highly elaborate as you would expect of a Spanish catholic church, although there was a simple wooden roof: one part with stars, and other pale yellow vaulted stone. There was a very life-like, full-sized Virgin wearing a real black velvet dress embossed in gold with a fantastic silver tiara and beautiful lace scarf and collar. The women were all in attendance, one (like on the bus in Scotland) with the sound turned up on her mobile, tap tapping in response to the message,which sounded very loud reverberating around the nave.

Such a pretty place.

The little girl who entered in her gold shoes, bracelets, and carrier bag with a pink ball in it, put her finger to her lips for a loud shush to grandma and great grandma. Extended families were present in their everyday clothes. The deeply tanned young men in their white t-shirts ranged around looking at the iconography. I was in the back with the lemon which fell off the tree in front of me as I left the hostel. I attracted attention presumably because I was not local. It was very much of a social gathering before the service.

I left after it started and enjoyed my own brand of spirituality, t’ai chi on the roof terrace in the evening sun with the village roofs on two sides, the countryside I had just walked through on a third, and the place I will walk into on the fourth. I gave thanks for the whole situation.

Another blog about the VDLP http://viadelaplata.canalblog.com/

Laurie Lee, As I Walked Out One Midsummer Morning  http://www.goodreads.com/book/show/1019332.As_I_Walked_Out_One_Midsummer_Morning

Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust                                                          https://www.brainpickings.org/2015/06/03/wanderlust-rebecca-solnit-walking/

Seville, Spain

Seville 14-16.5.17

I travelled to Seville from Madrid by Bla Bla Car with Francisco,

…and arrived rather later than anticipated. For a long time I had planned to start my next walk in Seville and posted on Facebook that I was looking for someone who would like Shiatsu in return for a bed. My kind friend, Gill, put me in touch with Pedro, a fellow Shiatsu practitioner, and he was more than welcoming with his excellent English.

It was good sleeping amongst the healing Chi of his practice room and I was delighted to listen to Jesús’ Cuban guitar for breakfast.

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My tourist day in Seville began when I was dropped off at Plaza de Armas (where you can also find the bus station and super-market), and I started my walk along the River Guadalquivir towards the Mercado (market) Lonja del Barranco in Calle Arjona, next to Puente de Isabel II (one of the many bridges at regular intervals along the waterway).

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The mercado / market
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The Isabel Bridge where I will start the Camino Via de la Plata tomorrow.
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Beautiful Jacaranda trees with their strong purple flowers.

I sauntered past shops with gleaming apricots and sombreros for sale.

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Then continued along the Paseo de Cristóbal Colón with its glorious colours: yellow earth, orange flowers and jade-green river. The subtle-sweet aromas, the sounds of school children, rhythms improvised with plastic bottles and hands making steel pan drum sounds on metal table and chair, with grass cutters in the background reminding me of those along the Brittany coast two days before.

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Coffee in the morning.
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Monument, La Tolerancia by Eduardo Chillida.
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The temperatures were to rise to near tropical within the week.

The architecture is quite different in this south-western corner of Spain. The yellow and white bullfighting stadium, deep pinks and orange of residential apartments are interspersed royal blue shuttered grandiosity. None of your Tobermory pale baby colours as on the Isle of Mull in Scotland.

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Decorative tiles.
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With plenty of statues of bullfighters.

Seville is a gay-friendly and open-minded place, extremely attractive, and full of tourists, artists and university students.

dsc_0184.jpgWhen I am in a city with so many famous sights, too many for a short visit, I have found a way to choose what to do: I get to a corner and I stand still and contemplate. If I like the look of the left-hand street I go there, if right then there. I have been practicing spontaneity and following my interest for many years in my Shiatsu sessions. Here my eyes draw me to a baroque exterior in the sunshine: a balustrade above oval windows, above decorated towers, beside naked torsos at the Instituto Geográfico y Estadístico in the Plaza Nueva next to the Plaza de San Francisco.

 

 

 

 

 

 

It was the unexpected details which caught my eye: the Banco de España (Bank of Spain) has cuboid trees; horses and carts sport shiny yellow wheels; while a woman squatted to take photos.

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There was more English spoken around me than I had heard in weeks. It was swelteringly hot so that I was glad to get into the cool church.

 

 

 

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The famous Puerta del Perdon .

 

 

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Saint Cristobel.
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The Cathedral where I got my credential and the first stamp for my walk from the guide at the door without having to queue.

If you get the chance to visit, check out the solid silver altar piece in the Cathedral, the flying angels holding lamps, pink marble, and, when I was there, spray after spray of white chrysanthemums and fragrant lillies. Outside, a young boy kindly put his arm around his brother and comforted him – there seemed to be good feeling everywhere.

I found myself back at the river: two men were lounging in a huge pedalo-type river craft made of white fibreglass;
a school girl on a bike was dressed in a burgundy and black kilt with matching socks; there were rows of municipal bicycles I had only previously seen in London; the green men on the road crossing signs walk! and three boys in swimming trunks took it in turns to jump off into the river. It was already 38 degrees. In fact for a moment I rather worried for myself for the walk tomorrow.

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Big boats acting as restaurants line the opposite side along where I will walk when I start my Camino the next morning.

That evening we went to a concert in the Moroccan Pavillion, from the Expo in 1992. It has a highly decorated interior and glows in the evening.

 

 

There was tango, piano and singing (mostly in English from British stage shows – apparently very popular) in shorts and T-shirt, and we sipped free beer and ate peanuts. Later we drove through the gloriously illuminated city and enjoyed tapas in the slight breeze – welcome at midnight sitting outside!

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Without a guide book, I had had to locate the setting-off place for the next leg of my travels through Spain on my own. Happily I had found it by chance at the very beginning of the day, so after a few hours of sleep I knew where to start.

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Zaragoza, Spain

Zaragoza 12-14.5.17

Zaragotha, home to an Origami Museum.

What did I do when I arrived in Zaragotha? I was welcomed by my host Yvonne and we went for a drink and something to eat! Whoever said that you cannot be a vegetarian in Spain?

Almond soup – cold. Delicious.
Baobab vegetarian restaurant.
http://www.restaurantebaobab.com/
View from the balcony of the flat where I stayed.

When I announced I was visiting Zaragoza, I was often asked why, even by people who live there! I think there is a popular idea that it is a predominantly industrial city and an army base. But, I can tell you that it is worth seeing.

The main square, Plaza del Pilar, is enormous, with not one but two cathedrals: the Basilica Nuestra Señora del Pilar, a very old church inside a less old, bigger one; and the Seo, Cathedral of the Saviour (Catedral del Salvador) with its spectacular tapestries.

Basilica.
Bas-reliefs on the outside walls of the Basilica.
The Spanish coup of July 1936 fractured the Spanish Republican Armed Forces and marked the beginning of the Spanish Civil War.
Down one end are the fountains backed by an expansive metal plate down which the water runs when it is on.
Catedral Basilica de Nuestra Señora del Pilar.
Tradition holds that on 2 January 40 AD, while Saint James was deep in prayer by the banks of the Ebro, the Mother of God (Nuestra Señora) appeared, gave him a column of jasper and instructed him to build a church in her honor.
Statues outside by Pablo Serrano.
Highly Baroque.
Vaulted ceilings.

Romanesque, Gothic and many other styles can be seen in this venerated place.
Francisco Goya and his relatives decorated the ceilings.
Floor decoration.

Confirmation taking place so we could not view the main altar.

In the past, the two cathedrals vied with each other to display the most impressive riches, but the Basilica is the only one with a canon ball hole in its front wall. As far as the parishioners are concerned it was an act of God that it did not explode when it came through during the civil war.

The Seo.
Also known as the Cathedral of the Saviour (del Salvador).
Or Parroquial de la Seo.
With its wonderful Moorish decoration.
Stunning tapestries upstairs – many are 15th century, stolen from Belgium.

Rooms of glorious tapestries.
Really ancient, fascinating scenes telling intricate stories with divers characters.

When I was in Normandy I met a paper sculptor and he told me I must go and see the Origami Museum in Zaragotha. But where was it? My hosts who had lived there for years did not know.

Ah, there – this advert for it was right beside us! See below.
There are modern pillars advertising the city and its other sights.

There are fountains, sculptures, the tourist information, exhibitions,  and plenty of space to sit or run around.

Large groups of immaculately dressed families celebrating their children’s the first communion.

That place alone takes a day or more to view properly.

Origami sculpture.
Goya himself, a famous inhabitant.

Within 5 minutes walk from there are ancient remains to be seen – an amphitheatre and clearly excavated dwellings.

There are beautiful lanes, squares and courtyards with cafes in. We had paella sitting outside in the warm shade for lunch.

Cafe y mirador del Museo (museum).
With palm trees.
Candy yellow and pink houses.
Archways leading to new delights.
You could spend dappled days wandering and stopping for drinks.

Watch other people strolling – you might not be able to see the pom poms on the little boy’s socks.
Yvonne and Danny.

Anywhere where music is played in the multi-storey car park as well as the cathedral is OK with me.

Here are some more of the origami and paper exhibits.

Made by Beata Kupczak, Poland.

Thanks to obliging Yvonne, who drove at top speed to catch the security guard before he closed the museum, I reclaimed my mobile phone with its 1000s of photos!

Other highlights included an evening walk along the Ebro, being shown the  contemporary architecture of the 2008 Expo with the Pabellón Puente bridge designed by Zaha Hadid, and the Aragon Pavillion with its effect of woven glass panels. (No photos because I had not got my phone back at this time).

I extend my thanks for the hospitality, keen conversation, and sightseeing I received in this impressive city.

The next day I took a Bla Bla Car along the autovia del Nordeste (A2) between Zaragoza and Madrid, passing by Guadalajara and the Panteón de la Duquesa de Sevillano. Knowing it was the Fiesta San Isidro that day, the biggest and best of the year, and with extra unexpected time in Madrid, I made the mistake of attempting to walk from Chamartín to Atocha stations to try and see the street celebrations. Well, I had been in the car for a long time already, and was going to be journeying a further 5 hours to Seville later the same day so I figured I could stretch my legs! Readers, do not try it – it is mostly motorway and you cannot walk on the motorway, so I took a detour and somehow managed to get lost (in immense heat, on a Sunday afternoon) in an industrial estate. Oh dear, I had to retrace my steps and take the metro. It was a disaster and I did not get to see any of the carnival.

After the most troublesome pick-up I have had with Bla Bla Car, I eventually managed to get my lift. The driver was a wheelchair using, cannabis-smoking athlete with a wicked sense of humour. He played me Luis Fonsi’s raunchy Latino ‘Despacito ft.’ and we translated from the Spanish to English, line by line, all the way to Seville, arriving much later than planned, and being met by the patient Pedro. See next blog – Seville.

Origami Museum website http://www.emoz.es/language/en/

 

Pontorson, La Berniére, Port de Pornic, Zaragoza – France/Spain 10

Pontorson 10.5.17; Brittany circular, coastal walk / ‘les balades’ (rambles) / ‘les randonnées’ (hikes) – La Bernière to Port de Pornic 11.5.17, both France.

Journey via Bla Bla Car to Zaragoza, Spain 12.5.17.

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Youth hostel, Pontarson, Normandy, France.

On the Camino Francés in Spain, the hostels are where you meet other backpackers and exchange tales. Up until today, I had not encountered anyone in France, but the two women I had seen the previous night were breakfasting when I got down to the youth hostel kitchen. After being initially engaged in (French) conversation with a rather interested man who told me he did all sorts of work, anything he was asked to do, and then kissed me goodbye (yes, the dangers of being a single female traveller!), I was invited to sit with them for a while. They asked me what I was up to and after explaining, I was enthusiastically given a piece of paper by Lysiane, with her name and address on it, and told that if I ever visited Brussels I could stay with her in return for Shiatsu. Almost everyone I meet and talk to knows what Shiatsu is and likes it; it really is quite notable compared with the UK.

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Station, Pontorson from where I got my first and only train during this month. Goodbye Normandy!

Myself and a number of others arrived at the station before it opened. It was unclear to us all how we should get tickets and where to go, until a brusque woman came to open up. We waited in the gorgeous sun before realising we needed to cross the tracks for the stopping train to Rennes which I had booked online the day before. A Japanese couple regaled us, as we waited, with a comparison between the efficiency of French signposting and the contrasting confusion in Britain.

My day’s walk on the Brittany coast began in the rain at La Bernière-en-Retz, a small town where a lot of street work was being carried out, but that was otherwise deserted. The sea was well out, revealing broad sands with low stone walls. I felt immensely light-hearted, as happy as I was when walking in northern Spain in the  Autumn of 2016.

The path was easy to find and varied. Sometimes it was on cliffs, at others beside dwellings. Always there was the expansive view of the water, with miniscule collectors of seafish in the distance. After a while there was a series of platforms from which hung voluminous lift-nets. I was told that when the tide is in, these fill with fish.  These traditional ‘carrelets’ are expensive apparently, but bring high yields and are found all along this coast.

‘les carrelets’c/o Olivier on Pinterest

The low stone walls are also demarcations related to fishing, left over from many years ago, and easily seen at certain times of the day.

Elegant hotels and old people’s homes line parts of the shore.

Grassy paths wound up and over the rocks, seagulls shrieked, and the fresh breeze bought welcome fragrances of the cypress trees.

Not a cypress.

Picnic lunch was taken (illegally, it transpired) under ancient stones to shelter from the wet.

Dolmen de la Joselière.

Port de Pornic with its gentle harbour, silver grey turrets, and small yachts came as a surprise. Rather quaint and sophisticated by turns, it is quite a centre but I did not investigate. Instead, here I turned and headed back the way I had come, stopping to divest myself of waterproof trousers as the sun started to show itself, seeing things from back-to-front and in a different light, literally.

The next day I took a Bla Bla Car from Bordeaux, via Bayonne, Irun, and Pamplona to Zaragoza to stay with the genial Yvonne.

Bordeaux station. France.
I needed a brandy while waiting in the extreme heat of midday.

Bla Bla Car is generally unknown in the UK. It is a fantastic system, originally set up so that someone who is making a long-distance journey has company while they drive. Nowadays some complain that it has become a sort of glorified taxi service, but on the whole I found it to be a social thing.

On the way.

It operates in France and Spain, and there is a website where you search for the setting-off point and destination, and then identify who you might like to go with. Like air bnb, the drivers are vetted and reviewed, and you can guarantee that the cost is less than the cheapest mode of public transport for that same journey. Sometimes the driver reserves the right to choose, and although you have paid (I used PayPal for safety), you can be rejected, and then the fee is repaid immediately.

In fact, it was often tricky to find a train or bus which goes went a to b at the times I was searching, whereas it was always possible to find someone who was driving, once you got the hang of the site. And of course I met fascinating people. On the first leg, from Bordeaux to Bayonne, I sat in the back with a young woman who told me all about her life, parents, health and loves, showing me photos and shedding a tear now and then.

Bayonne station, France. Most of the Bla Bla Car pick-ups happen at well known sites.
Passing through Irun on the mountainous border.
Massive trucks doing paperwork.

At Pamplona  we said good luck to two gentlemen who had both injured themselves on the Camino, been home to recover, and were re-joining it there. Then Charles, the car owner, and I made the final leg to Zaragoza, arriving at the radio station with messages flying between myself, my expectant host, and the driver. I have found all the drivers this month to be courteous and obliging. It was good that I had my daughter’s old Nokia with a topped-up Spanish SIM in it as we were late and so I was able to communicate by text and phone.

I had been asked several times why I was bothering to go to Zaragoza. It seems to have a poor reputation with tourists as a predominantly industrial city. My reasons for going: Yvonne kindly invited me when I met her at her father’s funeral and that was my plan – if I am invited somewhere I go, that’s how I choose between all the possible amazing places in Spain. Result: it was a fascinating and enjoyable place to visit, made considerably better I am sure by being shown around and treated like a queen by a resident!

 

 

 

 

 

Travels in Spain

I have just discovered that deleting photos from my media library at WordPress, the people who host these travel blogs, has meant that those deleted photos do not now appear in past blogs. The recent ones are fine.
I had no idea of this and am hoping that WordPress will contact me shortly to offer a solution. In the meantime, you will find blogs (eg about the Camino Frances in 2016) with text but no photos and I apologise for this.
Tamsin 24.7.17

This is a general introduction to my Spanish walking.

‘I travel not to go anywhere, but to go. I travel for travel’s sake. The great affair is to move.” R . L. Stevenson, Travels with a Donkey in the Cevennes

Time spent in Spain: 4.10.16 – 17.12.16; 12.5.17 – 24.5.17.

Some of these blogs were written ‘on the spot’, some soon after the event, and others when I returned to Scotland. What a joy to compile them!

At the 2016 Edinburgh International Book Festival, I heard Jean-Christophe Rufin explain (and these are my own words from the memory of that event), that all the walkers he saw seemed to be scribbling or typing a blog at every stop of the way, but that he decided not to do that and to rely instead on his own memory afterwards. But I am a 53 year old woman who has had 2 kids and has a head which is already very full of experiences, so I didn’t want to rely on mine!

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I began to walk the Camino Frances in Pamplona, Spain.

Writing has been a good way to assimilate and integrate my experiences, to make sense of where I have travelled, what I was thinking, and the conversations I had with people. It enabled me to tell my family, friends and colleagues what I was up to (similar to one of those news letters you sometimes receive in Xmas cards!), and, I now realise, to keep the spirit of my wonderful adventures alive.

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Donkey in a temporary street stall, Feria, a Basque county fair.

Origin of the blog name: There is a book by Scottish writer, Robert Louis Stevenson “Travels with a Donkey in the Cévennes”, and there is a French Camino  named after him which has a personal, family connection for me. Just as it is possible for campers to stay in a site where a tent is provided, ready-erected with a camp-bed in it; so there are many who take treks and have a mule or a person to carry their bags.  I walked around Spain with a rucksack on my back (containing what I needed for a 3-month stay, summer – winter), rather than having a donkey carry it for me.

“Whenever I was asked: ‘Why did you go to Santiago?’ I had a hard time answering. How could I explain to those who had not done it that the way has the effect – if not the virtue – to make you forget all reasons that led you to become involved in it in the first place.” Jean-Christophe Rufin, The Santiago Pilgrimage

So I won’t explain here why I decided to do this, although there is some explanation in later blogs.

But I will say that there were two distinct parts to my journey: one where I visited fellow Shiatsu (acupressure massage) and complementary therapy practitioners, giving sessions in return for bed and board. The other where I walked the Camino Frances and part of the Via de la Plata (‘o contrario’, backwards), staying in different hostels and hotels every night.

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Burgos, a major town along the Camino Frances, Spain.

The former came out of finding a way to stay in Spain without spending too much money. The latter was inspired by friends Phyllis and Liz, by books, programmes I heard on the radio, and the film, ‘The Way’. It turns out that walking the Camino suits someone like me, a normally busy person, active, and perhaps tending towards being workaholic or at least feeling full of responsibilities. I trained myself years ago to sit and meditate, but it could be that walking is more appropriate to my character.

“that fine intoxication that comes from much motion in the open air, that begins in a sort of dazzle and sluggishness in the brain, and ends in a peace that passes comprehension.” R.L. Stevenson, taken from various blogs (see below in English & French).

Camino: A walk, or track, often trodden for religious and spiritual reasons since the Middle Ages, by ‘peregrinos’ (Spanish for pilgrim). The best known is The Way of St James of Compostelle, or Camino Frances. All paths are signposted by the coquille Saint Jaques shell which walkers also carry to symbolise their journey. ‘The Camino de Santiago comprises a lattice of European pilgrimage itineraries which converge at Santiago de Compostela in north-west Spain.’ (Michael Murray, for ref. see below). They can begin in Jerusalem, Rome, and Paris, famously at Sean-Jean-Pied-de-Port in France; and are travelled across Spain, Portugal, France, England and elsewhere in Europe.

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The final way marker of the Camino Frances, Finnisterre, Spain.

The shell sign alongside the number of km still to travel. This one indicates I have arrived in Santiago de Compostella, November 23rd 2016 after walking from Pamplona.

This is where I went, in the order I visited: October – Downton (New Forest, Hampshire, England), Santander (by boat from Portsmouth), Salinas, Aviles, Oviedo, Bilbao, Egileor, Vitoria Gastiez, Feria, San Sebastian, Pamplona. Camino Frances 1 (Urtega (by bus from Pamplona) to Najera). Cortiguera, Aranjuez (via Madrid). Camino Frances 2 (San Juan de Ortega to Carrion). November – Madrid. Camino Frances 3 (Leon to Santiago de Compostella), Finnisterre, Santiago.

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Map showing Santiago de Compostella in north western Spain, the home of the Tomb of St James, final destination of pilgrims from all over the world.

December – Camino Via de la Plata (Santiago to Vilar de Bario). Xinzon, Ourense, Las Matas (via Madrid), Valencia (via Madrid), Olocau and Sierra Calderona, Barcelona, Edinburgh (by aeroplane).

I keep being asked whether I suffered from the walking, and I understand the question because I, too, was very worried about this, and allowed it to put me off starting. I did have a week or so of blisters at the start, but I had researched what to take with me before going, and had plasters, cream and a sewing kit with me (yes, we sew a thread through the part with the fluid and let it drain out over time to stop it getting infected!). The other pilgrims were really helpful and showed me how to look after my feet, so I didn’t have to stop, and my skin hardened up soon enough.

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Early on the Camino Frances, Spain.

My main concern had been my back and the load. I carried approximately 18kg (which was more than the recommended 5th of your body weight) and although it felt very heavy after 32km, there was no pain. All that yoga before I left, and my daily ‘Salutations to the Sun’ helped. I did have to pay to get it home on the aeroplane at the end, which was a nuisance and might have been avoided. Next time I will take a new-style, light-weight sleeping bag and towel to lighten my pack.

I trained as a professional dancer in my teens and early twenties, and am therefore used to daily class, working through the pain and stiffness of the night and previous day’s exertions. This probably helped me to deal with the numerous small physical difficulties which arose when I walked, especially at the start of the day. I used my Shiatsu and other training to identify the source, relax into the areas I was holding tension, and, lo! they disappeared as quickly as they came.

There were many other people who suffered and some who had to give up. I helped with Shiatsu where I could: feet, hands, ankles, backs etc, in the evenings at the hostels. It was good to meet travellers I had massaged later along the way, and particularly in Santiago on the final day to know they had been able to complete.

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Leaving Portsmouth, by sea, October 2016.

Kilometres walked: 700+ (Caminos), not including Sierra Calderona, Egileor, Aviles-Salinas, walking friends’ dogs, walking to school near Valencia, all the cities…

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Home by aeroplane, December 2016.

Walking without a donkey – Travels in Spain. Starting with blog 1 in England

The Stevenson Camino blogs I have enjoyed:

http://stevenson.canalblog.com/

http://walkinginfrance.info/short-walks/r-l-stevenson-trail/

Travel stories by Teri White Carns https://roadtripteri.com/2012/10/16/first-day-of-walking-pamplona-to-urtega/

M. Murray’s research into Caminos: https://www.qub.ac.uk/research-centres/TheInstituteofSpatialandEnvironmentalPlanning/Impact/WorkingPapers/FileStore/Filetoupload,432512,en.pdf

https://www.caminodesantiago.me/

Fantastic book: A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros

Olocau and Sierra Calderona: Part 2, Spain

Olocau, 12-14.12.16. Part 2

We walk in and out of the village taking Theo to school, picking our way over the stepping stones across two streams. I am so hot and sweaty, despite it being so late in the year, that I change into shorts and vest top with sunglasses when we get back. The golden dogs appreciate the shade.

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We eat delicious oranges that lie under the tree as we walk. At the local bar we are served bitter local olives, quick-cooked sardines, and peanuts in their shells which they grow in the garden – all free tapas with our beers.

The house sits on the edge of this protected area of natural beauty and the daily T’ai Chi is in the shadow of this marvellous scenery.  My host helps me plan the next day’s walking on his GPS which is invaluable once I get used to it.

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Duration: 8 hours. I went slowly to eke out the wonderfulness.

‘Walking: it (silence) hits you at first like an immense breathing in the ears. You feel the silence as if it  were a great fresh wind’. p.59 A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros.

Of course it is not silent really. If it is not birds; insects; leaves hushing, it is my brain’s noticings and internal conversations.

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As on the Caminos, it’s not unusual to find small cairns or piles of stones in significant places. 

There’s the smell of pine, and it’s a very cold 5 degrees as I start. The only sounds are the very high-pitched, fine bird song; the buzzing of insects; tutting of grasshoppers; and wind in the trees. Later there’s a period of hunters shooting, which seems to go on and on. When I am out of the sun, the cold air penetrates my clothes and hair.

Number of others I encounter: A pair of cyclists who I hear before I see them. Then they pass me and it’s only the birds again. There are only two walkers who happen along when I am lost and help me back onto the right track. My luck hasn’t run out.

As I climb, the Valencian plain comes into view, and I look down the rocky slopes to the mountains, so far in the distance that my phone camera can’t pick them up very well.

I walk along a smooth, wide, red-clay track which changes after a couple of hours to brown, yellow and sometimes gold. I am struck how different the colours are from Northern Spain. All around me are trees and shrubs of grey-silver, yellow-green, spring-green, brown, and a whitish pink.

It is really quiet. Twice I hear a noise which makes me turn, and it’s a red admiral butterfly’s wings moving – truly. I imagine this is how the wilderness might feel. I change into my shorts when it gets too hot and feel like a boy exploring exciting lands when I should be in school.

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Great big boulders blocking the path. 

I think there might have been recent rock falls, perhaps in the torrential rain I missed last week, because the path was all but blocked with giant boulders at times. I found myself clambering up to the summit, the Pico, on my hands and feet. There’s a little ‘altar’ at the top with a visitors’ book in which I write. I add a small white shell from the beach in Finnistere, which I have in my pocket.

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And then it was worse coming down, dangerous, and I often slipped and fell. Later as I rested, I heard rocks falling and saw movement of the undergrowth on the opposite slope. There was a wild boar, a large, heavy, dark animal which I had been often told about – so exciting!

Afterwards I visited the village for a welcome beer and wandered around. A beautiful church, an interestingly decorated house (with Charlie Chaplin),  and an alternative zebra / pedestrian crossing, all caught my eye.

I extended my stay an extra day to have one last wonderful walk in the tranquility, and thank my hosts Georgie and Phil for their generous hospitality. I hope the Shiatsu and other help I gave around the house conveyed my gratitude.

 

Valencia and Sierra Calderona: Part 1, Spain

Olocau, 9-11.12.16. Part 1

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View from the house

My wonderful hosts, family Anniss, live in the small village of Olocau on the edge of of the stunning Sierra Calderona national park.

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The walk to school – stepping stones. 

On my first day (Saturday) we walked to the nearby Iberian settlement which has recently undergone major smartening for the tourists (signs, wifi, new dark brown metal safety fences on top).

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There were trees I have never seen before: carob, persimmon, pomegranates, plus oranges and lemons, and flowering cacti.

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Pomegranates

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Persimmon

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And the higher we climbed, the more magnificent the views.

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There are bulrushes and giant versions of my house plants!

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The sun shone (although they had recently suffered 2 weeks of unusual and torrential rain and were to have a repeat after I left).

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On Sunday we sunbathed on the terrace and put up Xmas decorations…outside!

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On Monday I visited the elegant and colourful city of Valencia, and once more the sun kept me company.

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Nuestra Señora de los Descamparados 

The facades are particularly attractive.

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I loved the Jardin de las Hésperides (free to enter), beside the Botanic gardens (which you have to pay for – how I appreciate the Edinburgh ones being free), and an interesting exhibition (also free), in which I particularly enjoyed the work of Carmen Van den Eynde and Toya Legido.

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Carmen Van den Eynde http://www.carmenvan.es

Toya Legido http://www.toyalegido.com

I liked the simple churches:

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Although I had to admire the interior of San Nicolás and the small part of the Catédral which I didn’t have to pay to see.

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The fisher of men and elaborate ceiling of San Nicolás 


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And the font and artwork of the Catédral 

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Even the ticket office at the art deco station is impressive.

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Here I sat in repose, with my tin of mussels for lunch.

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I came across the Ceramic museum towards the end of the day. It is so close to the cafés and other buildings surrounding it, that it’s hard to get a good photo.

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Overall one very attractive city!

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Las Matas, Spain

Happy days with Barry and Maria José just north of Madrid (Las Rozas area) 7.12.16, 8.12.16

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Beautiful Madrid scenery. 

I arrived in Madrid at 6am after a broken night on the bus. (We stopped at services at 2, lights on and announcements made!). When I arrived it was dark, and I whiled away a few hours in a just-opened câfé until kind Lucia had woken up and I could collect my bag which she had been guarding for weeks.

Of the many journies I made, only one Spanish bus (Madrid-Léon) was late (and I was so keen to get there early). All the others I took on my many trips up and down the country, were on time, relatively affordable, and efficient. Many had a toilet, and also free wifi so I could write my blog while I was between stages. Indeed,  if I’d been able to work out the logistics, I could have watched films, and charged my phone on board too! I took one Bla Bla Car but generally found them very difficult to book online, and the driver didn’t say more than one word to me. The trains were all modern and made announcements in English as well as Castillian and the local dialect. Passengers on British trains eat constantly, but here there are no food trolleys or buffet car, not on the Vittoria-San Sebastian or local trains anyway.

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Rather disturbing sculpture by Antonio Lopéz outside Estación Sur / Atocha Madrid.

I was invited to stay at Lucia’s house in Madrid for a while and have a cup of tea, which I gratefully accepted and then left to meet Barry at Atocha / Estación Sur. He’s a South African Shiatsu practitioner who has been living in Spain for quite a while, and a contact given to me by Rebecca.

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More public art at Atocha (can’t find name of sculptor). 

We met beside the tropical garden inside the station and I was fascinated by the turtles swimming, climbing, and sitting on top of each other.

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Hard to see in this photo, but there are 100s of small, swimming turtles in an indoor pool.

Barry and I went on a local train (like the Cercanias shuttle to Aranjuez, this was cheap and stopped at all stations), and he pointed out the herds of deer standing proud in a park on the left as we made our way north in the same direction I had come a few hours earlier.

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I am so lucky to be staying at friends’ houses with beautiful grounds and pools.

We arrived in the sunshine and walked to their gorgeous and predominantly self-built house which is big enough for a large Shiatsu room AND a teaching hall.

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During the time I was with Barry and his partner Maria José, we had satisfying, long discussions about the positive effects of Shiatsu; Barry’s interesting life (born Kirkcaldy, bought up in South Africa, moved to Bulaweyo, travelled to London with £100 in his pocket…works as a magician as well as Shiatsu assistant /teacher etc); language (Maria José is a linguist and Spanish literature tutor, now learning Greek); Spanish politics and much more.

We had a fascinating walk in Torrelodones (I left my camera in the house so no photos) along what was planned to be a coast-to-coast waterway. There were sweet smelling shrubs, wild asparagus, and the chunky rocks I was going to become familiar with when walking in the bottom half of Spain, but which landscape is so different from the verdant Galician countryside I was used to.

We visited an artisan deli and bought manchego and Portuguese custard tarts; and I sampled the most delicious food: fresh tomato salad, pumpkin soup, pasta made from an ancient form of wheat (not spelt) and homemade pesto, all sourced locally from farms they have visited. I exchange Shiatsu for these necessary comforts.

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Las Matas station – photographed for the sake of contrast with the countryside I prefer. 

Two days later I was back ‘on the road’ through Madrid to Valencia. Every time I moved between places, I found the numbers of people and vehicles, the noise and busyness, very hard to manage. What I hoped were old anxieties and prickly, protective behaviour, resurfaced quickly in response.

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Sunrise from Las Matas

To be sure I was leaving with more stimulating memories. It’s amazing that all the people I have stayed with so far were unknown to me beforehand. Bar one, they have been Shiatsu contacts from many sources and more kind people you couldn’t meet.

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Taken from the bus – beautiful scenery through the tinted window at top speed. 

 

Via de la Plata Camino – Day 9, Spain

Vilar de Barrio to Xinzon and Ourense (again) 6.12.16  16km

Aim: Not to focus on what I do not have, but what I do.

Stops: One, to charge my phone and ‘recharge my batteries’ on the outskirts of Xinzon.

Got lost: I thought I was, but actually it was one straight main road between Vilar de Barrio and Xinzon, so, impossible.

Other pilgrims: I was not on the Camino, so none.

Weather: Beautifully sunny. Of course.

Lesson learned: Just because there are huge signs indicating a train station and also a bus stop in the centre of a village, it doesn’t mean there are any means of public transport in or out.

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A beautiful sunrise from the window of the albergue. Cold outside until mid morning. 

Having spent time planning my route into the mountains last night, I was surprised to find myself debating whether to continue. I was about to embark on the steepest climb into the mountains to Laxa, but I slept badly and had been sent various messages telling me of snow and rain further down the line. I realised that once I was at Laxa I would have to continue at least one more day as I would be in the middle of nowhere, and it dawned on me I was really quite tired, and the pain in the back of my knee, though not bad, wasn’t going away.

So I took the tricky decision to stop walking and take a bus to a town where I could get to Madrid. I had promised my hosts I would be with them on 27th November (10 days before), and cancelled at the last minute, which seemed to be becoming a bit of a feature of this trip – not something I had ever done before in the UK and therefore very uncomfortable. Each time I was acting on strong, strong urges to continue to walk.

But, there were no buses (later I discovered it was a holiday), and no trains (they don’t stop at the very well advertised and signposted station), and the taxi was going to be between €25-30. I tried asking about a school bus, or anyone going to somewhere who could give me a lift? But it transpired that I would have to walk.

There were more kindnesses from the man who charged my phone behind his counter, and the man in the petrol cubicle who drew me a map, and they fortified me in my resolve. Off I set, back along the long straight road I had come in by – for a particularly hard 3 hours’ walking. I even tried, weakly, to thumb a lift for the first time in my life, (before the motorway junction to Madrid), but no-one stopped and I made it to Xinzon by lunchtime.

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Where Xmas preparations were in full swing. 

I only had half an hour between arriving at the bus station on foot, and leaving by public transport, but it was enough time to be sent on a wild goose chase to buy a ticket that I actually had to buy on the bus itself. I sat in the sun for the 10 minutes it was late, soothed by the warmth. The question I debated was, where will I stay tonight?

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I don’t know what or who this is a statue of but I liked it. 

On arrival in Ourense, I booked the first bus I could afford to the capital and that took care of where to stay – on the bus. Then I shamefacedly contacted the folk in Las Matas and Barry kindly invited me for the 2 nights after.  (I have noticed before that if I stop pushing myself when I am tired, and take an easy way, my plans start flowing again and decisions come easier.)

The first time I visited I had promised myself that I would come back one day to go to the natural hot springs. And here I was, back sooner than imagined and, apparently, a happy 5 minutes from the out-of-town ones. So, with plenty of free time before 24.15, off I went to laze in sulphur waters, and what an experience: one of the best of my trip.

For €4 there are 3 pools made from magnificent slabs of granite that glitter by the Miño Rive (river) and motorway. The delicate sliver of a half moon was initially suspended in a bright blue sky in which the sun was setting. Then the moon got brighter and stronger as the sky darkened to inky blue, until it was totally black and I was red! One and a half hours of bliss and steam, lying back, intermittently leaving one pool for a freezing plunge, before a hotter one. I could feel my scratches, bites, muscles and joints being eased by the healing waters. The relaxation room has even got hot slabs to lie on.

This life, full of unexpectedness and new experiences.

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I met a woman on her way down who showed me the way. She had her empty plastic bottle and showed me her poor sore leg. There was a group of older people with their feet in what looked like a sewer (and smelled a bit like it), collecting the water. She said it works for her.

The lovely baths were followed by a walk by the previously really busy river, with now only the occasional individual. I traced and retraced my steps in the pitch dark to find the complicated way back through unlit undergrowth, camper-van parking lots, disused industrial buildings, and bulrushes. What with clambering over railway lines, across dual-carriageways, under motorway passes, and jumping across rivers, I guess I’ve been taking a few risks lately. With my rucksack on my back, my phone torch in my hand, and my heart in my mouth, I was thankful I lived to tell the tale.

 

Via de la Plata Camino – Day 8, Spain

Xunqueira de Ambia to Vilar de Barrio  5.12.16  13.4km

Rousseau wrote ‘I have never thought so much, existed so much, lived so much, been so much myself,…as in the journeys which I have made alone and on foot…intoxicated with delicious sensations.’ p. 70, A Philosophy of walking, Frederick Gros.

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Today’s aim: not to assume I know what will happen in the future.

As I have walked, I have thought a lot about the future, and at the moment I have decided that it’s a mistake to assume we know what will happen in 10 years time. Imagine if we were wrong and we don’t live that long, and we had said no to something because we thought we knew. I am still interested in using the present as a way of planning for the future.

My second important thought for the day concerns the chains of people’s kindnesses: if Merce hadn’t encouraged me I wouldn’t have left Pamplona and started the Camino; if I hadn’t walked with Alain I wouldn’t know the way of the pilgrim; if I hadn’t followed Clémence I would not have known how to work my way backwards through the Via de la Plata; and if the lovely man from Seville hadn’t let me copy the chemin from his GPS I wouldn’t be here now…

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This morning I am able to go more softly, and the morning is simply wonderful. I climb up and over rocky hills amongst Autumn colours (oak and bracken), and the landscape is stunning, the views breath-taking, and all the small happenings seem to have such value.

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A woman as small as me, in her pinny, and with a faint odour of cooking about her, but with perhaps an added 20 years, wanted to tell me, as I traipsed through her village, that I wasn’t going to Santiago (no, that’s right!). She wanted to know where I came from, to tell me which was the next village and how to get there, and to check, did I have something to eat? Bless.

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The second half is all very flat and rather monotonous. I somehow manage to get lost, despite being able to see where I am going miles ahead, and stopping lots of farm and heavy goods vehicles to ask the way. I clamber up and down river banks getting scratched by brambles whilst trying to find a way across. I retrace my steps quite a lot, and generally get a little downhearted.

Annoyances: Clouds of midges. How do they get right inside Google my clothes like that?

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It’s a series of long, long straight paths crossed by equally dead-straight roads for several hours, and the chocolate and bread I ate as I went along sat heavily in my stomach (the Spanish diet contains so much wheat!). I found that it was much harder to walk in this type of landscape, than on the gorgeous hillsides of the morning.

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I arrived in Vilar de Barrio at 3.15pm after walking 6 hours from where I started, and rather stupidly with no break. No wonder I felt exhausted, and had tired feet and middle back. For the first time it felt a bit of a strain, yet another new place after 8 straight days of hiking. However an ultra high-speed hot shower hit the right spot, and it wasn’t long before I was sitting with a cold beer and this fountain view.

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I had had hot sun all day and it was 16 degrees in the shade outside the bar, which given I was sitting in a t-shirt and flip-flops on 5th December wasn’t at all bad.

By 4.30pm the clouds were looming over the hill and I needed to eat. The supermarket was about to open but once again the hostel had no utensils and I still didn’t have a pan, so I decided to treat myself to cafe food, the first time on my own.

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Unfortunately the woman who cooked at the cafe went into hospital unexpectedly, so I had to wait until 8pm for the restaurant to open. Run by a much older couple, and with a verbal menu, I told her (in Spanish of course) about my vegetarian and fish diet and was offered verduras soup and tortilla. Ideal! In fact the former had chunks of mutton in it (though I didn’t have the heart to send it back so it was probably the first meat I’ve knowingly eaten in 30 years). The latter was the best I’ve ever tasted AND she wrapped the leftovers up for my lunch for the next day. Another much appreciated kindness.

There followed another night alone in the hostel, this time with underfloor heating, which was lovely for doing barefoot T’ai chi on in the light of the following morning’s sunrise.

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