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/

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

Camino Francés Camino – O Pedrouzo to Monte Gozo, Spain

22.11.16 O Pedrouzo to Monte Gozo 15.4 km

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

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

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

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

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

I prefer to praise nature

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

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

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

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

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

Camino Francés – Palas de Rei to Ribadiso to O Pedrouzo, Spain

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

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

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Another pretty Roman bridge in Gallicia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The best walking companion

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Looks yummy, doesn’t it?

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

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

Camino Francés – Sarria to Portomarin to Palas de Rei, Spain

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

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

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The Roman bridge of Aspera

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

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

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

 

 

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

The first sight of Portomarin
The first sight of Portomarin

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

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Characteristic ‘horreos’ where grain is stored for the winter

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

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

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

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

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

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100kms to go!

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

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

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

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

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The good weather had to break occassionally!

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

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

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

Camino Francés – Liñares to Triacastela to Sarria, Spain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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It is early afternoon when I arrive at Triacastela

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

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Iglesia Romanica de Santiago de Triacastela

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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WITH donkeys…

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

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

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

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

Camino Francés – Pieros to Vega de Valcarce to Linares, Spain

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

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

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

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

p. 98.

If possible.

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The snow far off.

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

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Different grape variation, different hue.

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

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

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

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3pm

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Huerto = vegetable garden. Huevos = eggs.

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

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

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

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

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

Rousseau p.72

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

p.46

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

Trail with daisies and barley

Down the rivers of the windfall light.

Fern Hill, Dylan Thomas

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Heading into nature’s portals.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Camino Francés – Foncebadon to Molinaseca to Pieros, Spain

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

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It was a cloudy start from Foncebadon this happy Saturday.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thanks to Alain for taking beautiful photos.

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

Walking without a donkey 15: Camino Francés (Burgos to Castrojerez).

30.10.16 – 31.10.16 Burgos to Hornillos to Castrojerez

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This photo looks as if it was taken in the countryside, but is part of Burgos. I visited a number of places where the local councils have provided beautiful pathways in and/or out of their cities, and after 28kms walking from San Juan de Ortega, it eased the weary end-of-day-feeling. 

The next morning, it didn’t take so long to get out of the urban environment I had spent the night in, and thankfully I was back into the countryside before too long, even if there were a few wrong turns to start with! It’s lucky that a friendly walker always seems to be there just as I am standing around looking bewildered, viewing first one, then a second possible turning, and somehow missing the yellow arrow.

Not long afterwards I started traversing km after km beside fields of dead sunflowers. They were a bit creepy, and sad. Maybe, I ponder, the seeds will be harvested later rather than all going to waste? But I discover through research on the web when I get home, that there are situations where this is not the case. Due to EU subsidies the farmers do not actually  need the crop. What a dreadful waste.

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We walk through villages where the Camino is their main livelihood, and so some decorate their houses in blue and yellow with the familiar logo,  making sure we walkers feel welcome, and presumably encouraging us to spend money in the bars.

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A blurred picture, but you can see the flags and colours of the Way of St James.

We pass delightful churches. Many are very simple with a single tower and entrance, charming in their structural naivety, and so attractive against the blue sky. They are not usually open, and when there is a long way to walk, we don’t often stop and view the interiors. They contribute to the overall spiritual atmosphere, reminding us that we tread in the footsteps of pilgrims through the ages. Their presence encourages silence.

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A largeish town, Hornillos del Camino (see that the name reflects its dependence on the Path), is in the region of Burgos, Castille y León. It is a well-kept and sturdy town, with wide streets of grey/yellow local stone, a Catholic church tower, and wooden balconies, and will be full of travellers in the summer months.

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The atmosphere was convivial that evening at the albergue: I shared a ‘pilgrim menu’ (3 courses with wine for 10 euros) with the others, and a good time was had by all!

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Hornillos has a backdrop of hills, which does not prepare you for the meseta, the flat and open countryside which follows for several days. Not having to watch for boulders or strive uphill does mean that one km merges into another, and that releases the Mind.

‘Think while walking, walk while thinking, and let writing be but the light pause, as the body on a walk rests in contemplation of wide open spaces.’                                                                                                                                                              p.20 A Philosophy of walking, Frédéric Gros

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I only just get used to being able to see my destination an hour ahead, when something very unexpected happens: The sign to the ruins of the Convento de San Antón is unasssuming, suggesting to me that it will be another small religious building. But there is the sound of heavenly music, and it gets louder and louder, until I round a corner to be faced with astonishing flying buttresses right across the pathway.

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It is an architectural spectacle! I have to stop and gaze at the most detailed and highly carved archway, replete with stone figures many of whose heads are missing due to the ravages of time, and there, there’s a donkey (or is it a camel?).

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In addition, on the right is a courtyard from which I discover the music emanates, together with familiar faces enjoying drinks and a toilet break. It turns out to be one of those amusing tourist interludes where the barman produces a ‘bag’ with a long, thin spout, full of wine, that you hold up high and pour into your mouth (or all over your face if you aren’t careful!).

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After these antics, we once again split into various groupings, and make off on the trail to Castrojerez with its idiosyncratic signage, and large shared dormitory for another night of snoring!

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Thanks to Randall St. Germain http://www.caminomyway.com/the-camino-de-santiago-in-spain-hornillos-del-camino-to-castrojeriz for sharing the Castrojerez website http://www.castrojeriz.com/en/historia/castrojeriz

http://sjppcompostelle.canalblog.com/archives/2016/10/30/34719823.html

 

 

Walking without a donkey 14: Camino Frances, San Juan to Burgos

29.10.16 San Juan de Ortega to Burgos, on foot

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San Juan de Ortega

Why did I come back to the Camino? I think I had already fallen in love! Walking out into a day like this, who would not?

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Certainly the world had that glow about it.

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The simplicity of walking out at dawn with only the immediate to think about. Holding hands with the landscape, falling into step with the climate, walking alongside the smells and tastes of each region as I passed through. Sharing only the necessary things of life: food, sleep, moving forwards.

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Kissing the colours of Autumn, embracing the opportunities that waited for me; arriving in a new place, and exploring the unfamiliar streets, churches, shops and cafes; resting on my bunk simultaneously listening to music; exchanging stories in unfamiliar tongues. The looked-for love affair that took me out of myself, and at the same time dropped me right into the essence of my being.

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As well as resting places, the many crosses and cairns (the Scottish word for a pile of stones often found in the hills and along paths), serve as locations for carefully selected rocks, placed by walkers to mark the spot. We give thanks for what has come to us. That we are still on our feet and continuing to walk the beautiful Camino.

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In Scotland, in summer, we often say to each other how lovely that the warmth brings people out of their houses, out of their thick, protective clothing, and liberates their chatter and laughter. Here I was in a seemingly perpetual summer, sun on my bare arms and legs, with the energy flowing up from the ground I was pacing, liberating me, and lightening my heart.

‘..the call of the great outdoors…the need to provoke…transgressions, to give substance at last to folly and dreams’. p.5 A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros.

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(Such a contrast to walking in Edinburgh in January! No-one smiles or gives a cheery ‘Buen Camino’ as I stride past. My nostrils are full of exhaust fumes so I can barely notice the smells of the hedges and herbs in the gardens I walk past. If it wasn’t for last night’s snow highlighting the fields and hills of Fife over the water, which I can thankfully see through the skeleton trees at the end of the road, there would only be cars and rushing people.)

As I have seen Burgos, which is today’s destination, twice already, I walk through and out towards the other side. This way I avoid the crowds in the centre, and sashay along the glorious river bank, discovering the outskirts later that evening.

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