Day 8, 12th October 2017. A detour: Der Hubertussee – wohlfuhl wege (feel-good ways or paths).
Yesterday I walked from Lower Austria into Styria and I was all prepared to carry on to Mariazell, the final leg of the Via Sacra pilgrimage, but my kind hosts persuaded me to stay longer. Thus, close as I was, I took a walk around the luminous Lake Hubertussee, along the river Walster and many of its arterial tributaries, through the surrounding forests and back to Mitterbach.
I had woken at 6.30am and done some writing before fresh-air T’ai chi in their garden by the River Erlauf.
Be not afraid of going slowly, be afraid only of standing still
Chinese proverb thanks rob_shiatsu.
When we were all ready, I was driven to Lake Hubertussee where two partook of a sugary breakfast, and Gudrun and I shared cheese and red pepper on rye bread. Amor, the toddler, played while we sat in the sun.
I walked away from the ‘family’ group around 11am, past the statue of the Imperial Kaiser Franz Joseph hunting. He was Emperor of Austria and King of Hungary (amongst other titles). I guess he must have come here for sport, but it is such a special place it is hard for me to imagine that.
There was the moon again, in the day sky, like one of those off-white, grapefruit jellies.
I spotted the Hubertskapelle (chapel), every sight more magnificent than the last. I thought it had a golden window but it was the gilded autumn leaves in the sun through the gap. Weed and sky-white cloud hung under the surface of the lake; gentle air caressed my arms.
Walking gives me the time to question things and here it was the ethics I have been raised with in the light of the unorthodox relationships I had encountered during my travels. Being an outsider and therefore able to witness the repercussions of them, I needed time to muse on the difference between opening to what might be possible thereby bringing new experiences, a way of challenging the norm; and at the same time asking myself whether it is possible to avoid being taken advantage of. I thought about ‘truth’, when or where it is important to tell it; if it is always necessary to do so; and if yes, to whom?
Then I became aware of the geese honking, taking my attention away from my thoughts and back into my surroundings. I continued, mindfully.
At the top, of course, I took the path down again, alongside the river which was diverted through attractive grey stone walls, channelling the water where man wanted it to go, and into yet another wonderful lake downstream.
There were brown-planked houses with simple pointed roofs which matched the pines, poised for take-off on the mountainsides opposite; virgin-white water cascaded between mossy cushions and knobbles of silver escarpment; sparkling orange, autumn foliage illuminated it all – it mesmerised me.
Once away from the lake one can walk and walk this trail and not see a soul, and it is to be relished.
There are lots of signs at some junctions (the red and white signs with numbers indicated the cycle routes), but then again there are places soon afterwards with none. Which way should I turn? My phone (Google) maps were OK, but in the middle of the countryside there is rarely coverage. I discovered that the best way to know when there was a signal was to leave my data and sound on. That way when I happened to walk into a zone, some message pinged in which alerted me to check the location. Otherwise, it did not drain my allowance or disturb my peace because it was so very rare.
Occasionally, unexpectedly, a village, no, not really that big, a collection of houses, appeared out of nowhere and helped me find myself on my GPS.
It was a mighty, majestic landscape of grey crags, dark brooding firs, and flaming beech atop: stimulating sights. I went slowly, I sat and watched the grasshoppers, stretching out this gorgeousness because I did not want it to end. The sun connected the sky and the earth, and created pin-prick stars for a moment on the water, and then they were gone as I rounded the corner into the shade. It was all so sensual and I felt alive to every sound, smell and feeling.
I get filled up with space when I come here.
Karine POLWART from ‘Wind’.
I went up and over and round a small mountain and had a bit of an epiphany at the summit. It was that sort of a day. It seemed to be the summation of this Via Sacra pilgrimage. I had very clearly set out my aim in advance: to help others while I travel, and I realised that I must then trust that all the encounters I have are beneficial to those I meet as well as to me, even if I do not understand how or why; that the time we spend together is enough for them and me.
I wrote down what I could use on a leaflet to give out as I make pilgrimages: ‘I am an experienced bodyworker. I am walking from place to place offering a moment of touch. You do not take your clothes off to receive and we do not need to be in private. If you are tired or in pain, sit down and I will give you some support. There is no fee or charge. I can be what your energy needs to know itself better. For the time we are together.’
And I reflected that to do this I have to arrive in a calm state – I have to have some energy left after the walk, which is another reason why I must pace myself. It is important that I treat myself like that, that I experience the joy of the ‘camino’, take time and rest in nature, so that people can tell I am trustworthy (in therapy speke, I am being congruent) and believe that I can help them. And that is it. It was all clear, there, in that magical place.
I gave some Shiatsu, of course, while I was staying in Mitterbach, by way of exchange for my bed and board. I also joined in Spanish and creative dance classes, and I shared some baby Shiatsu with two of Paula’s clients while she sat in and watched.
‘If you take seven steps to help one patient, it is the same as circumambulating all the Buddhas. If you give medicine one time to one patient, it is the same as having made charity to all sentient beings. When you fulfill the wishes of one patient, it is equal to having made offerings to all the worthwhile objects.’ Thanks to Max P.
A rural walk: Hammeren to Frognerseteren via Ullevaalseter, November 2017
I stayed a night with Sarah Huby, a Shiatsu School Edinburgh graduate and Oslo Shiatsu practitioner specialising in mothers and babies; and the rest of the time with Guro and Chris with whom I renewed acquaintance after many years. I was pleased to give Shiatsu sessions to say thanks for all the hospitality which came my way, and I particularly enjoyed the conversation, delicious meals, Zen morning meditation and the countryside walk.
Oslo is the capital city of Norway, with a centre which wraps around the edge of the fjord rather than in the middle of the sprawl. Did you know that there are 40 islands within the city limits?
That is where I sat the only other time I visited, on my 25th birthday (or thereabouts), before a women’s theatre ‘Magdalena Project’ took me to Porsgrunn where I stood on a bee.
More than 25 years later I spent 5 days here and I took simple ‘a to b’ utilitarian walks for visiting purposes or to the workshop venue, appreciating the scarlet houses, exposed millefeuille banks of rock on which the city rests, and a spectacular waterfall which is part of the Akerselva River.
The countryside walk began with a gentle pavement climb from the flat along the bus route and, though freezing, the sun lit up the primary colours making a real contrast with Austria’s pastel shaded buildings.
Once uphill we entered the forest, slipping on ice, inhaling the freshest air, and ‘putting the world to rights’ in compulsive conversation. It is not often I take a walk with others and I enjoyed the informed companionship of friends who could enlighten me about local customs and show me the way.
Others jogged by at quite some speed and made fascinating crunching noises leaving me wondering how they were not ‘coming a cropper’. Later, as I donned a pair of crampons for the first time (so simple – they just stretch and hug on to the toes and heels of walking boots), I realised why these athletes were safe: the tiny spikes on the soles break through the ice and hold you steady. I was like a child discovering something everyone else knew.
I had been promised ‘rubber pancakes’, so we stopped half way at a large, warm hostelry with a great many dead beasts’ heads on the walls – moose and the like, as you would expect. It transpires that the local delicacy is so called because they are made in the morning and are considerably less fresh by 4pm! They are thicker than crêpes but not as deep as Scottish drop-scones. Served cold, they are pasted with butter and jam and I would not recommend them. The apple cake, however, was yummy.
In the airport, everyone said ‘hi hi’ to me and were very pleasant, but as a rule Norwegian strangers do not smile easily at strangers. My friend tells me it is out of respect for ones privacy and space. It is weird for me when I am used to smiling and exchanging a greeting when walking in the Scottish or Spanish countryside.
As I left Oslo, the flakes were falling once again, children in the playground had their tongues out to catch them, the edges of the motorway were edged with icing sugar, and I admired the neat pink and yellow gable-ended flats and very tall pointed trees. Of course the Norwegian people are very tall too, compared to me. The Oslo temperature was raised to a high 4 degrees, matching the Edinburgh weather we were flying into.
Gardermoen Airport (Oslo) is a peaceful and calm place: no-one seemed to be rushing or stressed. I wondered why and came to the conclusion it was because there was no canned music – fantastic. I had 50 NOK for refreshment which turned out to be very little, so in case you are in the same situation here is my advice: have a personal stock of tea bags and get a cup of free hot water which is available in all the kiosks (cold is available to fill your bottle too – after all this practice, I now remember to empty it before security). Add to your hot drink, a bag of nuts (29 NOK), a bread roll with chocolate bits (I thought they were sultanas) 17 NOK, and a piece of fruit (4 NOK) and you will have a feast.
Note: In the duty free shop you can use £ sterling but any change will be given to you in NOK so try to be exact.
I just cannot resist taking photos through windows when I travel.
I have to report that the Edinburgh Airport loos were for the first time cleaner than those of the country I had recently visited. And I am also proud to say that our Airlink buses have tourist information on video in BSL sign language. (Take bus number 100 to the city centre; 200 to Granton, Newhaven and Leith; 300 to Ingleston, Gyle, Saughton etc for £4.50 single, £7.50 open return (have the exact cash ready or download the m-ticket app (minimum £10 spend)).
I flew Norwegian.com which was affordable because I booked months in advance.
A second blog about Vienna – photos, food, safety for women, tourist services and more.
I was visiting this elegant, dolls-house city for the first time for the purposes of attending the largest European Shiatsu Congress ever held. There were over 600 participants from very many countries including Greece, Norway, the Netherlands, Italy, Scotland, England, Germany, Switzerland and of course Austria.
It was truly wonderful to meet up with friends I made in France and Spain during the last year; spend time with colleagues from previous meet-ups; and forge new acquaintances.
In the same way that Gill, fellow practitioner, helped me find friends and hosts in Spain, Sabine was my guide and support here. I am grateful to her, her mother and Ursula for their kindness, generosity and friendship.
Trying to find the Tourist Information I was drawn to a certain loudness which turned out to be a slightly pop version of Gloria In Excelsis Deo. On October 31 1517 Martin Luther nailed 95 theses on the gates to the Wittenberg Castle Church. Thus began the Reformation whose 500th anniversary was this year. I had stumbled across the preparations for this event.
Useful facts: The ITI Tourist Information in Schmerlingpl. 3 is not the one you want, despite what Google maps tells you. Find the website for the right place and follow the link from there. And note that they cannot tell you anything about anywhere outside Vienna, including treks which leave the city or well-known pilgrimages.
There are a lot of men in statue form standing high on rooves looking down at us mortals.
She was the only female ruler of the Habsburg dominions and the sovereign of Austria, Hungary, Croatia, Bohemia, Transylvania, Mantua, Milan, Lodomeria and Galicia, the Austrian Netherlands and Parma.
I walked all over the city day and night and believe it is safe for solo women. I even made one very early walk alongside the metro line U6 which is raised up above the road level, and there were many men who looked ‘down at heel’, but no-one bothered me at all.
The Viennese speak great English which made it tricky to try my schoolgirl German. There are 1000s of tourists so most people you stop to ask the way have no better idea than you!
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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Kilometres walked: 700+ (Caminos), not including Sierra Calderona, Egileor, Aviles-Salinas, walking friends’ dogs, walking to school near Valencia, all the cities…
We walk in and out of the village taking Theo to school, picking our way over the stepping stones across two streams. I am so hot and sweaty, despite it being so late in the year, that I change into shorts and vest top with sunglasses when we get back. The golden dogs appreciate the shade.
We eat delicious oranges that lie under the tree as we walk. At the local bar we are served bitter local olives, quick-cooked sardines, and peanuts in their shells which they grow in the garden – all free tapas with our beers.
The house sits on the edge of this protectedarea of natural beauty and the daily T’ai Chi is in the shadow of this marvellous scenery. My host helps me plan the next day’s walking on his GPS which is invaluable once I get used to it.
Duration: 8 hours. I went slowly to eke out the wonderfulness.
‘Walking: it (silence) hits you at first like an immense breathing in the ears. You feel the silence as if it were a great fresh wind’. p.59 A Philosophy of Walking, Frederic Gros.
Of course it is not silent really. If it is not birds; insects; leaves hushing, it is my brain’s noticings and internal conversations.
As on the Caminos, it’s not unusual to find small cairns or piles of stones in significant places.
There’s the smell of pine, and it’s a very cold 5 degrees as I start. The only sounds are the very high-pitched, fine bird song; the buzzing of insects; tutting of grasshoppers; and wind in the trees. Later there’s a period of hunters shooting, which seems to go on and on. When I am out of the sun, the cold air penetrates my clothes and hair.
Number of others I encounter: A pair of cyclists who I hear before I see them. Then they pass me and it’s only the birds again. There are only two walkers who happen along when I am lost and help me back onto the right track. My luck hasn’t run out.
As I climb, the Valencian plain comes into view, and I look down the rocky slopes to the mountains, so far in the distance that my phone camera can’t pick them up very well.
I walk along a smooth, wide, red-clay track which changes after a couple of hours to brown, yellow and sometimes gold. I am struck how different the colours are from Northern Spain. All around me are trees and shrubs of grey-silver, yellow-green, spring-green, brown, and a whitish pink.
It is really quiet. Twice I hear a noise which makes me turn, and it’s a red admiral butterfly’s wings moving – truly. I imagine this is how the wilderness might feel. I change into my shorts when it gets too hot and feel like a boy exploring exciting lands when I should be in school.
Great big boulders blocking the path.
I think there might have been recent rock falls, perhaps in the torrential rain I missed last week, because the path was all but blocked with giant boulders at times. I found myself clambering up to the summit, the Pico, on my hands and feet. There’s a little ‘altar’ at the top with a visitors’ book in which I write. I add a small white shell from the beach in Finnistere, which I have in my pocket.
And then it was worse coming down, dangerous, and I often slipped and fell. Later as I rested, I heard rocks falling and saw movement of the undergrowth on the opposite slope. There was a wild boar, a large, heavy, dark animal which I had been often told about – so exciting!
Afterwards I visited the village for a welcome beer and wandered around. A beautiful church, an interestingly decorated house (with Charlie Chaplin), and an alternative zebra / pedestrian crossing, all caught my eye.
I extended my stay an extra day to have one last wonderful walk in the tranquility, and thank my hosts Georgie and Phil for their generous hospitality. I hope the Shiatsu and other help I gave around the house conveyed my gratitude.
16.11.16 – 17.11.16 Liñares to Triacastela 18.2 km; Triacastela to Sarria 18.7km
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.
‘for the walking body… is just an eddy in the stream of immemorial life.’ p. 6
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!
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.
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.
‘an abundance of beauty that can turn the soul over.’ p.6
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
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.
‘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.
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.
Luckily today there was no crisis as feared. Instead, you can see how the day unfolds in this time-line of photos:
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.
12.11.16 – 13.11.16 Foncebadon to Molinaseca 19.5km; Molinaseca to Pieros 21.1km
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
All quotes taken from A Philosophy of Walking by Frédéric Gros.
Days 5 and 6. 28-29 October 2016. Nájera (Camino Francés) – Burgos – Cortiguera – Madrid – Aranjuez – San Juan de Ortega (back on the Camino)
I made a promise to visit Gill (who had already put me in touch with so many lovely Shiatsu people to stay with) in Aranjuez, which is 50km south of Madrid, before the end of October. So I left the Camino at Nájera, after only 5 days of walking (blog posts 9, 10, 11), and went there via Burgos (90km, 1.5 hours by bus), Cortiguera (blog post 12, 70km north of Burgos), and Madrid (250km, 2.5 hours back down south) – a very long way round!
I only spent a little time in Burgos this time, but the sun shone and the bus station is central, so I was able to walk across the river, into Cathedral Square where I sat and ate my sandwiches, walked around the adjoining streets, visited a cafe for a green tea and wifi, and photographed the famous pilgrim statue.
Afterwards I returned to get my link to Cortiguera to see Dirk and Charo.
This was where I saw a group of vultures circling at eye level in front of majestic rocks above the slit of river far below.
I wrote in my diary on the bus: ‘This time the ‘bird’ I see as I approach the city is a silver plane rising in the blue sky. After the outdoorsy life I’ve been living in the country and small villages, I’m nervous about entering the capital city for the first time.’
I was right, it was a serious contrast, and I found travelling across Madrid a terrible strain. After calmly walking through the regions of La Rioja and Cantabria, with their expansive silence and disinterested wildlife, the thoughtful travellers at a regular pace, the noise, the numbers of people, the difficulty in negotiating the ticket machines at the underground stations – it was all an onslaught to my system – and I couldn’t take any photos.
On arrival at Aranjuez, I partook of a glass of wine and settled myself. Later I was treated to a pizza (urban food!), and taken to Gill’s amazing kitchen garden. Here she grows fruit and vegetables, and bakes delicious bread in an open oven which she shares with her neighbour. Alongside giving and teaching Shiatsu, hosting visiting tutors, leading chi gung classes, and generally keeping a large sector of the Spanish Shiatsu community connected, she delivers this fresh produce to people in the local area.
I had not bargained for the power of the Camino, and the next morning I overturned my plans to stay south for 5 days, and returned to the north, via Madrid and the bus station I was getting to know and love, back to Burgos and the Way. Thank you Gill and Jorge for being so understanding.
It turns out that getting to San Juan de Ortega in the evening is tricky. It was hard to get information and a taxi would have been extortionate, so I waited 4 hours (witnessing drunken fisticuffs in the street), before joining a local bus service which several people had told me would go there and for which I had a ticket. Needless to say I was the only foreigner. The large family group which made up the majority of the other passengers, were friendly and interested in me and why I was there. They chattered loudly, not seeming bothered by my pigeon Spanish, offering to share their snacks with me, and laughing hilariously at my escapades up and down the country.
When I was the only one left, and we were driving through the pitch dark (by now three quarters of an hour late), the driver asked me where I was going and ‘Si, si’, he pointed into the distance. He told me all about his wife and kids, and where he was going on holiday, and eventually deposited me in front of the former monastery, where I was met by a kind, but rather worried, fellow walker. He had been told that the bus usually drops folk off at the previous village and was ready to come out and escort me in case I met wolves walking through the night forest. Apparently the bus had made a detour especially for me. Being so late meant there were no beds left, but this same kind man had negotiated an alternative – in the library – as well as having supper waiting for me. I always knew I would get there safely, but those around me were not so sure until I actually arrived!
Sometimes I walk to get from a to b, sometimes because I am in training for a trip (eg when I was preparing to walk in the alps), and sometimes simply because the day is beautiful and I need to be outside.
I have been taking walks here and there in Spain – between towns, along beaches, on plains, up hills, through forests – and now I am getting hooked on the Camino Francés (the best known) of the Camino de Santiago pilgrimages, The Way of St. James.
My day three takes me from Estella (Navarra) to Los Arcos; on day four I reach Logroño; and at the end of day five I sleep in Nájera (La Rioja), all in northern Spain, moving east to west.
For me the process of walking day-by-day engenders prosaic observations, deep thought, and empty mind. For example, it strikes me as I stride that once you have decided on your path you just have to keep going until you get there. And if you take a wrong turn you can either retrace your footsteps, or choose a new way. What you can’t do is make the end come sooner than it does. There just are that many miles between you and where you are going.
On the other hand, although walking along the flat is good, when there’s nothing for miles around it’s impossible to find somewhere to snuck down for a private pee.
Because it’s hard not to look at the ground when you walk, you do get to see the little things which live down there. Flowers, butterflies, bugs, and an iguana basking on the dry, bleached path. People who know the hedgerows of Britain, my mother being the best amongst them, and from whom I learned most of what I know about flora and fauna, will recognise many of the flowers and bushes along this section of the Way: fennel, brambles, vetch, ragwort to name a few.
Not far out of Estella we come to the Bodegas Irache with it’s free wine fountain from which, tradition has it, you fill a small bottle and carry it to Santiago de Compostella as an offering. Needless to say most people drink it there and then, andI share a laugh with the other peregrinos (pilgrims) at this alcoholic alternative.
Further along, outside the ancient Benedictine Capuchin monastery and church, there is a large group of all ages, from little ones who are carried on their father’s shoulders, to teenagers and parents, singing the old English folk song Greeensleeves. Apparently they are members of the same extended family who are doing part of the Camino every school holidays.
There’s a strong wind today and I have more contact with others from all over the world, perhapsto take my mind off it – 2 strong American women with lots of experience; a Polish priest; a Frenchman who started on 4 September in Paris and has had barely a drop of rain in 6 weeks; a cigar seller from Alabama (a giant of a man with an impressive beard and booming voice); and many other interesting people who are all walking for their own individual, personal, and spiritual reasons.
Advice: If you fancy trying this, do remember to bring walking sticks to take some of the weight off your feet, waterproof footwear, and a cover for your back pack. I didn’t!
This blog is dedicated to my friend Liz (who I have worked with for many years, and who came into Edinburgh especially to lend me her book and share her Camino with me), and to Edie, who helped me keep the dream alive, although she was unable to accompany me.
I walked out of Puente la Reina, alone, before sun up. What a clean and well kept town. It was to be a day of minute observations, personal memories, and heightened awareness.
The conversations of the night before rang in my head. I had discovered a new language made up of words I could remember from school French, the 10 Spanish classes I took before I left Edinburgh, and ones I didn’t know I knew from long-ago Italian travels, novels and films. We all spoke a variation of that when we were together – the peregrinos’ hybrid.
As the day lightened, I remembered a walking meditation I was taught, and tried to imagine I was kissing the ground with my feet, especially when they felt sore. I was trying to go softly through the landscape. Little pains in my joints – left knee, right hip, left sole – reminded me to pay full attention to the way my feet met the soil and how my body weight was spread overthem. There’s a Spanish phrase I learned early on: ‘Poco a poco’, meaning that bit-by-bit something will happen, but you have to wait.It’s a good motto for the Camino: Take one mindful step at a time!
My mobile phone sat in my right hip pocket, and it seemed like I was carrying Tolkein’s ring or the locket horcrux in Harry Potter, but I decided I needed it to take photos and make quick notes of the many, wonderful things and places I was seeing.
Beautiful tiles set into coarse stone benches – ideal for relieving an aching body.
I saw more vultures (ref. to my Cortiguera blog), which, I was told, are ‘passeurs’ in Buddhism, symbols of moving from one life to the next (though I can’t find any information about this). It wasn’t until much later that I realised what they seemed to represent for me on my own journey. This bird watches and waits for something to die so that it can live. When I decided to come to Spain, I knew I wanted to clean up my life, metaphorically, so that I could move forwards into the second half of it with clarity. (Note: beware the Camino for prompting such deep thoughts!) These grand birds circle and float all around me at very regular intervals all along the way.
Reds, browns, greens – layer upon fertile layer of landscape.
Village by village I trod my way on, sharing stories with others who fell into step with me, stopping for a moment before picking up their own pace. People in my line of work talk about places which, with the right sort of use, gain in energy and atmosphere over time. This path has been trodden by countless pilgrims for centuries, and the energy is palpable.
Fuente, a fountain for refilling my water bottle.
Today I noticed that my breathing was starting to deepen, and I was starting to smell the plants around me. Each time I put my hand in my pocket and tasted a salted almond or sweet cranberry which my friend Merce gave me, I recalled the care I have been shown over and over again in Spain, and was grateful.
Before the day passed, I discovered Villatuerta town square with seven oak treees and that took me back to my home in Sevenoaks, Kent in England. This encouraged me to reflect that a number of things have been happening while I am in Spain, which are sort of taking me back through earlier times in my life. In Tarot there are Gate cards, meaning that if you meditate on them they allow you to move under and on to another state or stage. All along my way there are gates and archways, man-made and natural, which seem to invite me through. It is well known that the Camino can have this effect too.
I walk into Estella with a companion, changing from Spanish to French. We pay 6 euros for our beds in a huge shared dormitory, and I am treated to a cooked dinner. There’s a great sense of well-being and peace after walking all day. It’s a simple pastime and, poco a poco, it slows down my thoughts .