I flew from Edinburgh at lunch time without any incidents, and had time to spare in Stanstead where I have never seen so many people in short shorts in such a small place!
My plane was arriving in Alicante at 9.30pm and I needed to be in Valencia by the morning. I had researched many different ways to make the transfer, and as previous readers of my blog will know, I have had adventures with Bla Bla Car in the past, so I went with that option. However, this time it backfired: the driver cancelled a few minutes before boarding for Spain and that left me without any way to make the journey that night as the final bus between the cities leaves at 9.30pm.
I remembered how people have turned up to help me when I have had challenges before, so when I was in my seat before take-off I asked the woman, Ana, in the next chair if she could check my Spanish translation, and she was a honey! As we were delayed on the runway (yes, Ryanair), she was invaluable in helping me search and book an Air bnb, as well as an early morning bus, so by the time I was in the air I had plans. Then we had time for stories of family and travel, cake decorating, and common kindness. The sun set like an inside out blood orange.
Of course arriving in Spain in July, even in the late evening is a hot thing to do. But I managed the bus into town smoothly (2 euros 70) and made the journey on foot to Pilar’s. Oh, to exist was to be covered in a smooth, thick, sheen of sweat!
I had not brushed up on my Spanish before leaving as I meant to, and so was rather pleased to hear myself finding accessible vocabulary which I thought I had forgotten. Pilar and I swapped walking stories and tales of a knee which won’t allow her to climb. I managed about 5 hours sleep.
Walking through dark Alicante at 4am I marveled at the ink black sky and waning moon. Bored Guardia Civil were on their phones, and divers back packers on the edge of the pavement or draped over rucksacks with black eye masks. Me? this time I had a suitcase and smaller rucksack so I did not belong to that itinerant group.
I managed to dissuade a random man from linking up with me, and on the bus Spanish radio voices rattled away, and girls made excited phone calls as I drifted in and out of sleep. I was so tired that a stiff neck and hips did not deter me.
And in no time at all there was Valencia, its sun rising in pastel colours of baby blue and pink with old gold at the edges and it was already 25 degrees at 7am. I had been warned!
And so I arrived in Olocau, and the market was in full swing as we drove through the village (see previous blog).
The first thing I noticed was the wonderful aroma of lemony pine. I was welcomed by the dogs Pollo (chicken in Spanish) and Louis who were to be my companions for the next three weeks.
First I had free range eggs from their chickens for breakfast, and later I was shown how to feed and care for them.
There was sort of surround sound, a constant zzzzz, that might be mistaken for electricity but was of course cicadas.
Inside there was the sound of trickling water from the goldfish tank, outside the swimming pool jets, and occasional renting of the peace by the dogs’ warning barks.
Actually there was plenty of quiet between it all for my meditation, and although in the Sierra Calderona at this time of day the sun was around and above, in the valley was a very green cool.
Above the house and village are grand cliffs and I half expected the heads of American presidents to morph out of them.
My first proper walk was wonderful for the first 3 hours, but then I became aware that the sun was still on my right (it was about 10.30am) and that therefore I was heading north. I should have curved around and started to head for home before this, so I must have missed the path. Eventually I discovered I was in Antigua Marines. The scale of the map was too small for me to find paths through the mountains, and the only way google showed me home was by road. That was when I discovered that the dogs were not traffic savvy and I could not control them. In the end I hit upon phoning Sue, a woman I had not even met yet, to be collected in the car. What a disaster!
Other walks I made during the following week were frequently in 30 degrees, with warm golden evening light, and I got lost a lot: I came across a fountain that way (photo at top of page); I admired the goats which were multi-coloured with twisted horns, bells tinkling, and ear tags – they were nervous of me but not of the dogs; and the magnificent variety of greens.
Today I removed a tiny bloated frog from the bottom of the pool, yesterday more than one whopping great spider, and the day before a courageous hedgehog. I do not know how long he had been there, and I know hedgehogs love to swim (so it says on the internet anyway), but then I saw him going under and so I hoiked him out with the dustpan which I had been using to clear the patio. He just stayed put on the grass for ages, breathing but not even hiding his snout. Eventually I wrapped him in a towel, put him in a box and placed the box in the flower bed. I thought he might be starving if he had been in the pool for hours (or even all night). An internet site suggested he might like scrambled eggs and green beans, but by the time they had cooked and cooled he had left.
Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Guillenna to Castilblanco de los Arroyos. 18 kms. 38 degrees heat on arrival.
There was a crescent moon high over Guillena as I left, happy in the cool air at 6.15am. There were already birds singing and the cats and kittens were skittering around the deserted village, scouting the bins and very nervous of me. There was that Spanish smell: a mix of plants, food, perhaps even the building materials – very hard to describe. The cock was heralding the dawn of my next stage. As I walked I felt really happy, happier and happier, and the kittens did their tree climbing practice while their mum looked on.
If I had walked past here extending the kilometers covered, as the Germans did yesterday, to the next town or even further, I would have missed this. As it was I was refreshed and ready for the journey. I realised that I was only wearing a T shirt and yet the temperature was very pleasant. The only clouds bordered the horizon.
I traversed the River de Huelva, bats flying around me, and ah! I remembered that I had left my food in the hostel fridge again. Mental note to self for tomorrow. I hoped it would be enjoyed by others.
My camera could not see the sunrise the way my eyes could. I rehearsed the description in my mind so I could try and conjure it up for you later: the colours of course – red and blue at the top, a stippled layer of dark purple underneath pale yellow, under pink – not like anything reproduced in fabric or paint. And all this above a silhouetted horizon of palm trees, like pineapples on sticks. The top edges of ordinary farm or industrial buildings stretched right across my vision, pulling my gaze towards my destination away from the hedgerow. That sillouette got stronger and stronger as I walked the long stretch of road, and as always on the outskirts of towns, there were very few arrows to guide me.
And then it lightened.
I came to an industrial area by the main road intersection. My mind was mostly quiet except for the mini-panics over finding the way. I passed by a blue, white and yellow warehouse. Behind it there was a lot of rubbish littering the deserted tarmac – similar to yesterday on the outside of Seville – and there was an air of danger. I am not religious, but I felt as if the cross which hung around my neck given to me by Pedro the night before I left was protecting me. Perhaps his wish for me to have a safe journey was imbued into it.
I was prepared for difficulties because there was no translation of the website directions last night so I had nothing to go by, but after an hour I came to farm land, across a dry river bed, and there were the wonders of nature laid out before me.
My Shiatsu and its theory is always with me and I muse: I guess all of us who love to walk, feet on the ground, have to be balancing our Earth element, so then it follows that worry can be a normal thing for us, and the walking helps with that worry. There’s a rabbit! And bees collecting. My thoughts are interrupted by what surrounds me.
Soft grasses stroked my arm. The warming sun released the smells which changed from a damper, cool, morning green smell, to an earthier, warmer, sweet brown smell, and then to the searing fiery red emanating from the soil which has absorbed so much sun over so long. The track stretched straight into the distance and now I could see that there was one pilgrim ahead of me and 3 Italians behind. I had spoken to one the night before as we both had some French. There was a Spaniard with a stout stick and an Alsatian dog coming in the opposite direction. I needed to choose my footing carefully, picking my way across the very stony, pinky-brown earth with olive groves on one side, and crops on the other. Each had a narrow strip of flowers and grasses where the pesticide had not killed them.
I kept asking myself why I walk. Maybe to prove myself to myself, to learn to be with myself without judgment, so I can do that with others? The quieter I am, the more accurately I hear, and then I know things before they happen. I mean, when I am attentive, things come into my mind before they take place outside of me, and so I am not surprised by them when they happen. I am pleased with this. It releases some of the anxiety, but it is still new to me, and unfamiliar. I believe that this sixth sense is one of the things babies have but then lose, getting replaced with fear. I am trying to unlearn the fear.
‘A walk was her answer to everything. It was her way of saying she did not want to talk.’ p. 190 The Words In My Hand, Guinevere Glasfurd
I heard amazing bird song and it is so hard to put into words. Some songs are simple, one or two notes, others start with one, but complete with a different rhythm altogether, however they did repeat, as if they were giving me lots of chances to understand what they were ‘saying’.
Ahead was a wonderful sight – a tiny castle in the distance amongst a huge field of sunflowers.
Another thing which happens as I walk is that memories surface, triggered, I suppose, by things I see or other thoughts. Today I was thinking a lot about my mum and I, when we were in Menorca many years ago. Maybe she was thinking about that too.
I had entered the natural park which signaled the start of the Sierra Norte and the Cortijo del Chaparral with its terracotta earth pathways. It was still flat, though, and I was heading in the direction of Castilblanco de los Arroyos.
Glimpses of last night’s dreams floated frustratingly in and out of consciousness. I reflected that part of this happiness was knowing that I had set off at good hour so that if anything went wrong there was time to put it right.
There were more thoughts and observations, and then I returned to the walking, my breath, the feeling of my feet and core. There was the odd ‘hola’ to hard working farmers as I walked. I must have been losing fluids because I was regularly tightening my rucksack straps. (It must fit me snugly to avoid back and shoulder ache.)
A group of men who were working hard in the fields, miles from each other but still managing to converse, did not notice me passing until I was gone. Then they unfolded, absent-mindedly curious. Someone was hand-pruning a peach orchard. Here were pregnant long-horned cows and rabbits in among the olives, and I heard a new bird call: a hoot coming in 2s and 3s that was being responded to in kind from who knows where.
One bird screeched, its long tail beating up and down. It was collecting from the ground and doing a sort of bouncy hopping from 2 feet to 2 feet, right alongside the rabbits, taking scraps to the excited babies in its nest. One bird daringly swooped in festoons from tree to tree, brushing past my head. There was lavender, rosemary and sharp cistus bushes, with sage too, and later a pungent like-sweet peas type of fragrance.
It was rocky with lots of yellow arrows. My advice if you are walking this way? if you have not seen one in the last 5 minutes, retrace your steps. I was tempted by the sounds of fellow travellers and immediately took a wrong turn, but one turned out to be the first Brit I had come across, a cyclist with good advice. He ‘buen camino-ed’ me from a distance later, unsure for some reason whether I spoke in English, and that little exchange changed my energy. I saw him again, once, and he was looking for a post office to send back his guitar. He said it seemed to be a good idea at the time, but actually it was a nuisance on the bike and unused.
Varied mental antics: The ants hurried along in opposite directions. There was a buzz of pylons as I passed underneath that sent my brain fizzing. I was so glad that I did not add this to yesterday’s walk in what was a 38 degrees heat at the end of a 35 km walk. I am so often hungry, I wondered if perhaps I was starving in another life. The solo peregrino who I thought was behind me, passed as I sat quietly on a rock and ate my pear. I was using Bill Palmer’s concept of buoyant / full organs to keep my solar plexus open, in contrast to the curled-forwards posture of the everyday backpacker. There were butterflies galore, some almost black. I thought, remember! our words live on inside others, so take care with them, take responsibility.
I make the least imprint on the earth I think, walking like this, compared with bikes, cars, trains and planes, and I hope I give lots back in return for the joy I am getting.
In case you get lost after leaving the park, you turn left into the road, cross over and there is a path through the undergrowth on the other side. It has to be eyes down for the arrows.
Once I got back into my stride, I thought, walking the Caminos suits those with a strong sense of behaving correctly, because when you walk alone you please yourself.
If it is early when you arrive in Castilblanco (11.30am), do as others do and and sit outside the first bar you come to, because the albergue opens at 1pm.
So I went for some food. And after all, why should they serve what their English version menu offers? Especially if they have gone through it with you beforehand, explaining what they do and do not have, and showing you that the reason they do not have the fried anchovies is because it is not on the Spanish side, see? And you explain, ‘sin carne / no meat’ (ah, yes, I remembered the way this went!), and the first thing they brought (when I ordered chickpea salad) was meat stew, and then I reminded him that I did not eat meat, and he said, ‘what, not chorizo?’ and so he offered spinach salad. And after a long time a delicious spinach and chickpea curry arrived with fried bread. And I definitely did not say, ‘but you said there was no spinach’. And it all went beautifully with the red wine.
The ‘pilgrim’s menu’, much later in the evening honest, was 8€. The calamares (squid) came the way I expected it to. That was one reason why I asked for it. I thought it would be simpler. Why do I insist on speaking in Spanish when he has some English and my Spanish is so limited?
The hospitalier was charming. The albergue / hostel doubles up as a day centre for people with disabilities and there is space out the front to sit and watch the world go by. The dorms are upstairs and follow the usual format – everything is provided for washing self and clothes, for sleeping, and preparing food, and it was spic and span.
In 3 hrs my washing was dry, even the thick stuff, and by then the roof terrace tiles were too hot to walk on. It was decorated and full of others, congenially chatting in multiple languages.
Finnisterre / Fistera (by bus) / Santiago de Compostella 24 – 28.11.17
The bus from Santiago de Compostella to Fisterra in the O Coruña province of Galicia, Spain, takes 3+ hours. We drove through torrential rain, along a really beautiful coast which was often shrouded in mist, arriving in the dull damp, with rucksacks and immediately wet shoes. Happily, the bus stops in the centre of the town and the accommodation was only a short walk away.
Oh it was dreadful! Booking.com did not come up trumps, and, later, a complaint had to be made. It was surely the dirtiest kitchen and coldest set of rooms imaginable, without wifi. The only thing going for it was the hot baths.
But look what happened! The next day the sun was shining, and Spain was its usual, stunning self.
The final part of the long ‘chemin’, the Camino path, is to the fin de la terre that gives the area its name, the ‘end of the earth’. It’s a slow hour’s 3 kms wander, uphill out of the town, and past the final milestone.
The road passes a church.
There are glorious views to gawp at!
Here’s the last of the grand pilgrim statues.
There is a small group of buildings at the point – a hotel, gift shop and the lighthouse.
And, oh, there was the Atlantic Ocean, and it was a wonderful sight to behold.
I sat and contemplated the expanse of water.
Taking photos of more walking-related statues.
￼￼While I sat, two men arrived. They had obviously walked the last part of the Camino de Francés, and they undressed and danced and whooped with joy. I wouldn’t be surprised if they went on to burn their boots ceremoniously, as many do. Too wasteful for me!
On the way back down, there were still nasturtiums even though it was the end of November!
And other vibrantly coloured flowers growing by the roadside.
The harbour is full of fishing and pleasure boats, and there’s lots to see at all times of the year, even when it is out of season.
There are several supermarkets, one gift shop, a post office and banks, but it’s a sparse town with an air of bewilderment at the wacky backpackers pouring in and out every day. There are also dogs just running around the streets, with cars swerving dangerously to avoid them.
The view from the balcony of accommodation #2 was gorgeous. I enjoyed my sunset sangria and snacks of mussels in spicy sauce ‘en escabeche’. These were slow, peaceful days after the long trek, spent mostly in the open air because it’s a habit that is hard to break. We breakfasted and supped on the terrace, grand meals prepared in the spotless self-catering kitchen. It was, however, slightly less private, what with the loudly copulating couple in the room above.
It is almost obligatory to beach comb in Finnisterre, reputedly the home of the coquille Saint Jaques shells. At that time of year the strand is totally deserted, almost rivalling our Scottish ones, but that suited the end-of-the-road mood. It was good paddling weather!
Being away from the city of Santiago, the cafés are cheaper, with free wifi, cake and biscuits, and no-one takes any notice of how long you sit there, or if you simply pop in to use the toilet.
On the 27th it was back to Santiago and getting to know the attractive wee streets and gift shops some more. There was a delicious final meal of paella, including my first taste of razor fish, and much happy on-street greetings of friends previously met along the way.
It was an early morning farewell to Alain, my walking companion of the previous weeks, on 28th, and afterwards I wandered around Santiago feeling somewhat lost (and hung over). Then, well, then of course, I set off walking again.
Thoreau, Gros writes, ‘… we store when walking vivid feelings and sunny memories for winter evenings’. From A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros
Most people in Edinburgh live pretty close to some green space* – a patch of grass for dog walking, a play-park for children (and teenage smokers), or the grander Holyrood Park with its famous Arthur’s Seat and Salisbury Crags. Underneath, well, at a lower level than the roads, is where the network of railways used to run, and much of that is now an intricate, and, let’s face it, often very confusing, myriad of cycle paths. But, we are very lucky to have them.
On a very chilly morning, when my phone said it was -2 degrees at 8.30am, I set off through Trinity for a meeting with wise Jenny. There’s a new Sculpture Workshop cafe, Milk, at the Newhaven end, offering welcome hot drinks and scones, and they have blankets for the very cold weather, which is nice touch.
Three hours later, when the edges of the leaves still had white around them, I spontaneously chose not to return home on the pavements, but to take the path less travelled (know that poem by Robert Frost? see below for link), and I discovered that nature is at it again, preparing for spring.
Walking engenders trust, because every step I take is a reassurance that the earth is steady underneath me. And when I walk in nature, I notice that it changes, and that those changes are cyclical, reliably so. And if I keep on doing that walking, I become reassured without even knowing it. Today is a reminder of that – all around me is shiny and green. Look carefully and the bluebells and snowdrops are poking their heads through! Whatever I do, good or bad, the seasons shift regularly, and the ground is still there when I put my weight down onto it.
Walking is quiet, so the wildlife doesn’t know I am coming, and I am startled by a bird flashing out of the undergrowth; a squirrel makes a courageous leap across the path and lands on the thinnest of branches above my head, sweeping and dipping backwards and forwards and up and down, as it tries to regain its footing and run towards the trunk. It manages to save itself from plunging onto the tarmac in front of me. Just.
Traffic noise is in the background and thank goodness for that. I take an involuntary deep breath, and hear melodic birdsong, and a repeated shussh rustly sound, as if something is falling through the bushes beside me. It’s a mystery what’s caused it.
I saw a wren, yes, an actual wren, – so unusual that it must be a blessing. It was fluttering in the fetid-looking, standing-water in the sunshine. Except it can’t be fetid because then I see a lady blackbird, and a sparrow, and they are doing the same thing, so they must know better, and be on to a good thing.
A lot of the cycle path is in the shade in winter, but there are patches of sunlight, and that reveals badger setts. The black ice sometimes stays on the path all day long and my bike has skidded in the past, tipping me unceremoniously and painfully over. It can be dangerous in other ways: two of my daughter’s friends were mugged a few years ago on another section, and so I am repeatedly warned against walking on these ways at dusk.
Like the Camino, there’s a sense of a community along this network, with political or family-day-out posters on lighting poles. There is evidence of little kindnesses along the way: a rubbish bag that someone has put out to limit the mess, which is regularly emptied; a baby hat picked up and hung on a railing just in case someone comes back to look for it.
There are runners, buggies, and sometimes both – mums and dads running with the push-chair; there are bikes, some side-by-side chatting as they ride; there are single and multiple dogs (now that there’s a rise in people who go house-to-house collecting the canines for walkies while their owners are out at work); there are young and old; commuters; and sightseers with sunglasses and binoculars. The other day I was overtaken by a ‘proper’ walker, with a backpack, striding purposefully with poles; and there are folk on the way back from Morrisons with their shopping.
I walk on the tiny strip of grass by the side, and feel-hear a familiar, hollow sound underfoot. Not the clatter of my shoe on the hard surface, or the thud I get when I walk on the grass under the trees on Boswell Drive, but as if there’s space underneath the icy ground. And it’s springy.
For an hour I walk, and I am unaware of the news, or my day-to-day worries. When I walk, news becomes surprisingly unimportant. Walking and feeling the ground solid underneath me then seems to help me write about what is real, not imagined. ‘Soon’ writes Frédéric Gros, ‘you have lost all knowledge of the world and its gymnastics’. p.81/82 in A Philosophy of Walking.
*Study by Catharine Ward Thompson et al 2013: ‘Contact with green space in the environment has been associated with mental health benefits, but the mechanism underpinning this association is not clear. This study extends an earlier exploratory study showing that more green space in deprived urban neighbourhoods in Scotland is linked to lower levels of perceived stress and improved physiological stress as measured by diurnal patterns of cortisol secretion.’ http://www.mdpi.com/1660-4601/10/9/4086/htm