Via de la Plata Camino – Day 8, Spain

23rd May 2017. Via de la Plata camino walk, Spain. Day 8: Villafranca de los Barros to Torremejía, in the autonomous community of Extremadura, Badajoz province. 26 kms which should take a minimum of 6 hours with breaks.

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One star shone beside the moon (or was it a satellite?)

I left Villfranca at 5.50am and it was darker than ever before. Once I had found my way out of town I was in open scrub land. There was the dawn at the edge of the world; the sky was blue, red and orange. I heard the sound of a lone cockerel, saw a white horse just visible, and smelled the faint odour of farm fertiliser.

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There were orange lights already in the distance, and tractors passed me under the tiny, thin crescent moon. Oh, the sweet, sweet feathered melodies!

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As I found my stride, my state of mind calmed. My pack was extra heavy with provisions, and my feet already hot, but the air was cool and I gave thanks for that. The dusty path was occasionally lit up by one or two red tail lights. Then it went quiet. The flower buds were tightly shut.

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The sky was a bright orange purple and the fiery dome took three minutes or so to appear.

The moment when the the sun finally rose was very exciting, and afterwards the opposite sky was a blank white.

‘(Pilgrimage is) … walking in search of something intangible..’ p. 45 Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.

Some travellers write their blogs after getting home and I can see why; although the trekking itself does not take all day the mindset needed for that, together with the attendant tasks of looking after the BodyMind and dealing with practicalities, can do.

Indeed, I recently advised a prospective peregrino to leave books at home. That was partly due to the weight, but also because I do not read much when I am on a pilgrimage, and I do not see others reading around me. Fiction can transport you to another place, and many pilgrims believe that focussing on their spiritual goal is vital and do not want to be distracted.

‘…- and for pilgrims, walking is work.’ p. 45 Wanderlust by Rebecca Solnit.

On reflection, I ‘saw’ that I do tend to set myself extra and unnecessary tasks, and yesterday it transpired, I also did some needless work for the business back home thinking I was indispensible perhaps. As I put one foot in front of another I could take note of such patterns and habits of mine.

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To the east were hills like different sized piles of manure you will clear up later. In the sky was an orange haze which seemed to be creating a white misty look between it and the land, whereas the other half of the globe was flat to the horizon, and the vineyards of the Ribeiro region a uniform blue. The arrows were easy to see, the backpack was no bother, but my feet were still calling my attention at times.

I enjoyed the immaculately ploughed red soil between rows of vines.

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The world was in technicolour.

Olives, with their stumpy wiggly trunks, stretched into infinity. One patch had solar panels and an extra crop of what might have been green manure between the trees. The cordoned vines had thin little stems, perhaps because the wires were supporting them so they did not need to be stronger. I would like to know why some rows were planted north-south, and some east-west.

 

The sweet fennel and cow parsley smelled delicious. My skin remained cool, and it was brightening quickly. Other wild flowers competed with the blue of the sky, and there were pink His Master’s Voice horns of common bindweed by the path.

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Before I left the hostel, breakfast looked better than usual so I had paid for it, and consequently I was full of sugary energy. My shadow was really tall; my alter ego which could reach things down from high shelves in the supermarket.

In the fields, today’s job was trimming the long tendrils, and other than those men, it was me myself I as far as I could see in both directions. Even the farmers were alone, although an occasional conversation reached me.

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Vast expanses of sky and road.

I liked the swirls in the earth at the ends of rows where the tractor had turned; hated the repetitive machinery noise to my left which source I could not see; and blocked my nose from the acrid, chemical smell I had been warned about.

I had also read that there was neither village nor water for the entire 26 kilometers and I could believe it. I only had one litre and so knew that I would have to be careful not to drink too much too soon. Sadly, as I took the signposted turning, the noise got louder.

The tireder I got, the less time had passed since I last looked at my watch. Chemicals smelling like paint were being sprayed so I tried to pick up pace, but my body had set its own rhythm. Tonight, I thought, I am drinking some wine!

By 8.40am I was no longer alone; there were four Italians in a group and another solitary man on the road. We moved at regular intervals from each other.

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The same person I had shared a dormitory with the previous night, with his hat, carrier bag and wooden walking stick.

After almost 3 hours without a break, I was casting ahead for a tree throwing shade, but there was not one until 9.20! After a 15 minute break, and having eaten my orange because it was the heaviest and also full much needed fluids (delicious it was), I deduced that we were barmy, the lot of us, walking so far in this heat.

I then passed the hat-wearing man sitting on a wee waymarker, and he said he was muy cansado (very tired). He added that we were half way. On I went.

A town with unusual looking farm buildings appeared. Ah! maybe wine vats. It looked like the outside edges of a huge swimming pool and I imagined it was full of grapes with barefooted people trampling around it. Do they actually do that these days? It could of course be sewage, which would be less ‘romantic’.

Luckily, the actual smell was of newly cut branches and very fresh sap.

For some reason I suffered a lot of pains on and off, and I also started to feel the skin on my right arm and leg, the side where the sun was, getting that soon-to-be-burned feeling. To remedy it, I draped my magenta wrap over that side of me. That wrap sure does come in handy. (See my blog on what to pack in your rucksack).

Swifts zapped flies, zig-zagging across my sight. Were those cordoned olives? If they were, then that would make for many more plants per acre than the row system, so it would certainly make financial sense if the earth could sustain it.

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You cannot see from the photo, but the mountain rock strata were clear to the human eye.

I broke again at 10.45 for lunch under a tree, feet throbbing – it was so very hot. A pylon was crackling like a fire, indeed there was a smell of burning. As I ate I let my crumbs drop for the ants and watched one carry a huge piece away, picturing it arriving back home and saying ‘look what I got!’ It was a messy business for the bottom, sitting on the earth like that. I restarted at 11am and, yes, there were a lot of little inexplicable smouldering fires between the olive trees.

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A sea of white wheat.

Towards the end of the day’s walk I spent a short period, only the second time in the past 8 days, talking to someone as we went along. He was from Barcelona and was doing the camino to get away from his demanding family, he said. He assured me that despite his exhaustion, of course he wanted to keep on walking until he reached Salamanca (a further 11 days). Such determination!

At 1pm in a 31 degree heat, after seven rather than six hours of walking, I arrived in Torremejía. (Put the accent on the final ee: toh-ray-mah-heee-ah).

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Privacy, despite the available beds.

The hostel host owns a bar as well, on Avenida Extremadura, but there was a family issue and it was closed that evening, so I sat in the one opposite and had a beer and wrote my notes. Useful info: the supermarket on the same street is shut for a long time between lunch and evening.

I did buy that bottle of wine I had promised myself, and I also invited the man in the above photo, plus a Dutch cyclist new on the scene, to join me. We had some surprisingly entertaining conversation, in divers languages, and it was very enjoyable to sit around the table with fellow travellers again as I had done so often on the Camino Frances.

For some reason the host kindly offered us a free breakfast when his bar reopened the next morning; it provided simple fare with generous portions and friendly service.

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Toast for breakfast with a great deal of butter!

Tomorrow would be my last day on this leg of the 1000 kilometer Via de la Plata, so I would have to wait to see Salamanca another time.

For a list of stages of this camino and other information, check out the link: http://santiago-compostela.net/via-de-la-plata/

Albergue Rojo-Plata, recommended. Very friendly host. http://albergue-rojo-plata.com/Inicio.htm

Rojo-Plata bar. I had a free breakfast there but did not eat an evening meal  https://www.tripadvisor.ie/Restaurant_Review-g7614464-d7986966-Reviews-Restaurante_Albergue_Rojo_Plata-Torremejia_Province_of_Badajoz_Extremadura.html

Gênets to Mont Saint Michel – France

Genêts to Mont Saint-Michel (13 kms across the sand) to Bas-Courtils 8.5.17

‘As I left home that morning and walked away from the sleeping village, it never occurred to me that others had done this before me.’ Laurie Lee, London Road chapter.

Yes, me too! Several people had recently enquired, on hearing I was going to visit Mont Saint-Michel, if I was planning to walk or not. It is an island in the bay which forms a maritime corner of southern Normandy. I had replied that I was walking around the coast and crossing the boardwalk to get there from the south. Until, that is, I realised what they meant: these people had already been to the Mount before me and they had crossed the sands on foot from Genêts. Then I knew that was what I had to do this bank holiday Monday.

The day began with 25 minutes of fast walking from the youth hostel to the set-off place. (Note: If you want to do this too, and I highly recommend that you do, and if you are not just making a day-trip from home, you must book accommodation in advance (see below)). It was the track I would have taken last night had I not been distracted by the beach and tiredness, and consequently missed the markers. I rushed cross-country, through soft grass and pale powdery sand, as the day heated up. As always, everyone was really helpful, and I made it just in time.

It is impossible to make the journey to the isle from the east without a guide as the sands are treacherous and the tide must be at the right turn. There are two companies which offer to take you as part of a group (see below for details), and it was busy, busy, busy, possibly the busiest day of the year. As a result there were groups leaving every 30 minutes or so, and I had to wait. No problem, I whiled away the time in a cafe with wifi and the most generous waitress. I know I have ‘brass neck’, but it comes in useful in certain situations, such as when you need to send a well-translated message in French but do not know how to do it yourself

I watched the others who were massing: men, women and children; old and young; some who had clearly been many times before. I was the only one with a ‘serious’ rucksack (by which I mean I had clothes, sleeping bag, cooking utensils etc on my back – stuff for a month’s travelling), and I too removed my footwear, dangling them from a strap so I had both hands to steady myself as we negotiated the sinking sands.

What a wonderful and moving experience! Layers of time seemed to concertina, and I felt as if I was simultaneously myself and a medieval pilgrim, arriving at last from afar, at the culmination of an arduous journey and full of spiritual expectation.

Trekking across the sands like that takes two and a half hours. Be prepared for cold feet, lots of mud, and finding yourself in seawater to mid calf or knees (depending on the weight of what you are carrying).

There is a large rock, very similar to Bass Rock off the coast of East Lothian in Scotland, called La Roche Tombelaine, which you stop at on the way. The guide gives continuous commentary (in French) about the fascinating history and wild-life, together with stories galore.

According to wikipedia, the name Tombelaine means “the tomb of Hélène”, from a princess named Hélène, daughter of King Hoël, said to have been buried on the rock.

In 1423, Tombelaine was taken over by the English because it was close enough from which to attack the Mount. Luckily it was unsuccessful. In actual fact, no-one has managed to damage M S-M, not during the war, before, or since, so it is easy to understand why some Normandy folk believe it has divine protection.

As we got closer and closer, the grandeur, the sheer size of the Abbey on top of such a small base, was awe inspiring.

The Mount is made of granite, like our own Aberdeen, from the nearby Chausey islands. Rising 80 metres above sea level, it was quite some task, in the past, to bring the rocks up.

 

Many ‘workers’ trod this wheel to do the job of raising food, tools and building materials in 1880.

When I arrived, there were long queues for the foot fountains for washing so I did not bother, and I had to pay to get into the toilet. Then the woman in the tourist office told me I would not be allowed into the Abbey with my back pack due to terrorist threats. I reckoned differently, not having come all this way on foot, with this weight, only to be refused admittance. Barefoot, I continued my winding way up the back street to avoid the crowds.

Today I made an exception to my own rule and bought a ticket. I do not usually pay to go into places because I do not have the money for the expense, and because it encourages me to go to different venues and see things from different angles.  But I knew I needed to go into this one, and I discovered later that the entrance ticket hall was the place the very poor pilgrims of the past were received to be given alms and admitted for a blessing. If I did indeed come here in a previous life, I was surely one of this group.

The almonry, now ticket hall, once the lowly reception for the poorest.
Lofty ceilings and slithers of windows split the light into holy shafts.

We waited for our English speaking guide (he was very entertaining and knowledgeable) on the terrace before entering. As it turned out, no-one looked twice at my pack so I did not have to plead or prostrate myself to be let in. Once again my age, sex, and perhaps skin colour seemed to be a bonus. It was well worth it, but a long tour. I left after 2 hours because I was very cold and getting tired carrying the weighty luggage around with me, but it was still going strong when I peeled away.

There is so much to say about this place, and many photographs available elsewhere. I listened and looked at chamber after chamber, conscious of the cold stone under my soles and imagining myself as one of the nuns he was describing, silent and worshipping through the ages.

The cloisters were being rennovated so I had to take this through the railings.

I was moved by the dark, Romanesque Crypt of St Martin with its eight pillars where sinners awaited sentencing;

And fully engaged by the tale of a 1000 years of construction stimulated apparently, originally, by Saint Michael (as in the archangel) speaking not once, but twice to Aubert, Bishop of nearby Avranches, before he took heed and started construction; and, finally, with the building of the Gothic-style choir (chancel).

Dining Hall where the richest visitors were entertained by the Abbot.

It was sumptuously hot once outside again, and I wound my way down between souvenir shops and restaurants, sampling a small red wine to warm my cockles. There I spied a picture of a man on a donkey, the grandfather of the owner, held up by his son.

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A garden hidden behind an almost solid gate (did not stop me).
Great views from high up.

By the time I walked out towards the northern coast of Brittany, under a baking sun and along the sun-bleached wooden walk-way, I was not a little dazed by the special energy of the place.

Dazed and a bit tilted.
Still very low tide. We were advised to come back again when the sea is surrounding the Mount – it only happens twice a year.
You can not tell from this, but the wind is getting up.

I found my way to the bus-stop, ate a snack while I waited, sailed eastwards right through Bas-Courtils, making a mental note that there was somewhere I might eat later, and alighting some 5 kms further on in Courtils, not knowing they were two different villages with almost identical names.

When you have been walking and walking for days, and then you get into a vehicle, it seems very, very fast and rather unnerving.

I had booked a bed, but when I went into the first shop I could find to get wifi so I could look on my phone for the address, I realised I did not have it. I started to panic (I rarely worry when I am away walking, but have noticed that it can happen when I am tired). The kind proprietress came to help and suggested I look on my list of received calls from 2 days ago. That way I managed to phone and get the address, only to then discover my mistake. Of course, I planned to walk, but no, the same woman insisted that she take me back there in her car – what a sweetie, such kindness.

Gîtes d’Etape (sort of travellers hostel), Bas-Courtils.
 

A double bed, in fact the entire place, all to myself for 11 euros (no breakfast but a place to hang my washing).

I have discovered that I am the sort of person who wants to know why things happen. Walking has taught me that when I pay attention, if I am very quiet inside, and I listen in a very relaxed way, the reason for everything is simply there. But it does require me to be calm, to really stay in this exact moment. It means that the anxious parts must go to the back, and trust or acceptance must be in the foreground. (Although trusting can be a conscious act, and this other thing simply happens while you are living.) Perhaps it is an undoing rather than a doing. Undoing the learned concern, questioning, and fearing.

 

I could still see the Mount from where I stayed the night, almost the same size as it was on another horizon when I left earlier that morning (see photo above).

It is proven to me by a tiny thing like forgetting to eat the orange and discovering it days later when there’s nothing else except hunger; larger things, such as not planning accommodation and then it rains so you could not have walked anyway; and even larger things, where you meet the right person at the right time, and although it can seem completely unfathomable then, it results in a major life change. That phrase comes to me: ‘mine is not to question why’.

A place of pilgrimage, linking Mont Saint-Michel to Santiago de Compostelle where I visited in late 2016, with the coquille Saint Jaques (shell of St James).

That night I felt blessed. Truly.

I stayed at the youth hostel in Genêts on the mainland (http://www.hifrance.org/auberge-de-jeunesse/genets–baie-mont-st-michel.html). You may be able to book there at the last minute if it is not a bank holiday or high season, but if you want to stay on the Mount (it is an island), you definitely have to plan ahead as it is one of the most popular visitor attractions in France.

La Manche tourist site (English language version) with details of walks, maps etc.  http://www.manche-tourism.com/gr223-coastal-path

One company with whom you can walk across the bay. Cost: 7 euros one-way (you can walk back (or go by bus, or in a horse and cart) via another route). You can also go and return in one day, with time there to sight-see. And there are other alternatives.  https://www.decouvertebaie.com/42-traversees-traditionnelles-traditionnelle–depart-genets-point-a.html

Mont Saint-Michel tourist site http://www.ot-montsaintmichel.com/index.htm?lang=en

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.