Thursday, 31 December 2009

As one door does another

Day 2 - Villafranca del Bierzo to Herrerias 20.5kms

Today is a short day. This has been determined by the availability of accommodation and food. We will stay in Herrerias tonight and cross the mountain at O Cebreiro tomorrow.

We were in no great rush to leave and we looked out at the grey and bleak day. The drizzle was constant. The mist hung low on the surrounding hills but the air was filled with the warming smell of wood smoke as the village houses stoked their fires. At breakfast there had been an air of quiet excitement. It was Hogmanay. A family were heading to Santiago to see the Holy Door being opened. At the bar a TV crew in distinctive red anoraks downed small coffees and huge slices of cake. They were there for the local "apertura". As the Holy Door is broken open in Santiago in Villafranco del Bierzo their own door, the Puerta del Perdon is opened. This happens with great ceremony and the full liturgy led by the Bishop is printed in a commemorative booklet and captured on TV. The town is very proud of the tradition which was started for those pilgrims of old who because of illness could not reach Santiago. We would have liked to stay to walk through the Door of Forgiveness but we had to set out. In truth I feel ambivalent about these traditions. There are many of them all over the world from lillies being blessed in honour of St Anthony in the Gorbals of Glasgow to the statue of the Virgin of Fatima being processed around the streets of South London by the ex pat Portuguese community. When I was younger I felt they were no more that an ad hoc ecclesiastical tourist strategy. As I've grown older I understand more the need we have for tradition and the need of humans to find some way of bringing heaven closer to earth. Is that not what has taken pilgrims to Finisterre since time immemorial?

These thoughts didn't last long as we braced ourselves and followed the route which follows the river almost all day. It was in spate fed by the constant rain and the snow melting on the mountains. We stopped to look at waterfalls and when the rain abated we had that feeling of "this is the life". But one thing was missing - other pilgrims. In the distance we spotted a red poncho. After an hour or so we caught up with Ingrid from Stuttgart. A lassie in her 20's she was making a solo pilgrimage from Leon. Educated at Durham University she had been to Scotland. "Have you seen any other pilgrims?" She asked. We told her we'd seen a few yesterday including some young people with a support vehicle. "But the albergues have been empty" she said. We reflected on the mysteries of how pilgrims come and go. I remarked on the book by the German comedian which I had read in English. "It is funny" she said, "but he wasn't a proper pilgrim". "But he walked the required distance, made friends and embraced God." We said, "Isn't that pilgrimage?" We could tell she wasn't convinced. A little further on she bade us farewell to walk along the road rather than follow the arrows because it is quicker. As we shook hands she heard the Big Man cough in a spasm. Rifling through a pocket she produced two tea bags. "These are good for the cold" she said. Dead pan the Big Man asked, "Are these made in Germany", she replied in the affirmative. "Ah well, I'll only need one then I'll be cured" he said. She laughed heartily. She'd met Glaswegians before.

All the way to Herrerias the rain beat down relentlessly. We stopped in a bar to see New Year in New Zealand on the television. I thought of fellow pilgrim Margaret and had an idea. "El ano acabando", a woman said. "The year is coming to a head."

The battle through the rain prevented the usual nostalgia of hogmanay taking grip. In the last year a lot of hateful things have happened as well as good. But like the rain I can do nothing about them.

We reached our hostal and began to dry out. We had thought we would have to make an expedition for food. The woman explained that they were having a party after 11 to celebrate New Year. However to our delight she said she would have a meal ready for us at 8.00pm and with no prompting said she would also open the bar.

So dear friends. We've declared a new time zone here in Herrerias and at exactly 9pm, glass of the Gold Stuff in hand, we will toast all of you and welcome the Year of Santiago.

Meanwhile the giant solar panels on the hillside above the hotel Valcarce lie stretched out on the sodden grass. They know that if they wait long enough they will be sunbathing again.
Sent from my BlackBerry® wireless device

Wednesday, 30 December 2009

Cold, colder, rain, dry, sun, rainbows, rain, rain, rain

Day 1 - Ponferrada to Villafranca del Bierzo 22.5 kms

The journey from London to Madrid was without delay and soon we emerged out of the Metro into a Puerto del Sol teeming with people and teeming with rain. The square which marks the exact middle of Spain was dominated by a huge modernistic Christmas tree. Quite beautiful. There, tens of thousands of Spaniards will eat a grape with each of the 12 strikes of the great town hall clock to herald the New Year at midnight on the Noche Vieja - known to the civilised Scots as Hogmanay. But our plan is to celebrate that night far to the North and so after a lovely evening in the Capital we boarded the bus for the 4.5 hour journey to Ponferrada.

The further north we travelled the heavier the rain and the lower the temperature. We drove through the hills with snow lying on the fields but this had cleared by the time we reached our destination.We had an early night. The Big Man is still recovering from a recent illness and the wet weather has revived a throbbing rheumatic in my elbow. We mused as to whether we could invent a new class of "early old crocks" just like "early retired". It had rained steadily all evening and it didn't let up. The evening news was followed by a weather report which almost comically showed all of Spain getting rain. I woke during the night and it was still raining. It was the same at breakfast. We donned our full gear, said our farewells and stepped out into...dry weather.

And so it contined for the morning's walk to Cacabelos. The trail was waterlogged and awash at times. Dark clouds hung heavily above us. Lots of threats but still no rain. A couple of hours passed before we met our first fellow pilgrims in total throughout the day it felt as if there were about 20 pilgrims on the route. But no one was really speaking. Some were obviously suffering from overheating in their rain gear and we passed a small group of young people with seemingly impossibly large rucksacks. As the morning came to an end and lunch approached the sun broke through. Strong. Hot. Everything looked incongruous. We began a deep discussion. Not about whether the equity market was still rallying but rather about whether we shoud stop and take off our long johns. Ah how el Camino simplifies life! But before the question could be resolved the drizzle started. A rainbow crossed our path and the wind billowed the ponchos of two pilgrims in the distance. We were glad to stop and watch the rain beat down from inside a warm bar. Then the rain stopped just as suddenly. The afternoon passed pleasantly. I watched three young pilgrims run up a hill with their large rucksacks and wondered if I was becoming an old crock. But then we passed four middle aged pilgrims walking without rucksacks but painfully moving forward at a snail's pace. They looked miserable when the clouds opened.

We have now established a number of things. Don't wear very much under rain jackets, don't discard long johns at the first sign of sun and Farmacias sell a Spanish version of Lemsip.

A lasting image is of the blackened stumps of shorn olive trees queuing for Spring standing in alien lakes of rain water. They gazed at us without interest. They've seen it all before.

Monday, 28 December 2009

El Camino Hogmanay

Today the adventure begins. All of the winter gear has been laid out for packing: base layer, long johns, middle layer, fleece and a rain shell of trousers and jacket. Double rucksack protection with a liner and cover complete the winter list. This year I’m also trying waterproof gloves having suffered from freezing fingers in the past. They’ve worked well so far.

The CSJ’s publication Winter Pilgrim by Alison Raju is still the best source of advice around in my opinion. Alison advises layering clothes as the most effective way of combating the cold and she repeats the mantra of “get warm and stay warm” as well as good advice to keep dry at all costs. In cold conditions getting wet is a real enemy and can be very dangerous as body temperature can plummet.
If the pamphlet is short on anything it is mention of the substantial range of modern “technical” clothing which is now available. This gear is expensive but is highly effective. I’m packing a featherlight windproof top which can double as a base layer. I’m also packing my Patagonia R2 fleece which is one of the best investments I have ever made. This alongside a merino wool top will keep me toasting. In the past I have always used waterproof over-trousers to pull on if it rains. On this journey, according to the forecasts, rain and snow are inevitable, probably in considerable quantities. Therefore I’m opting for a pair of fully lined waterproof trousers for walking and a spare pair of trousers for evening use. These plus the Patagonia rain jacket and gaiters will keep me dry. I wrote in an earlier post about problems with condensation with this jacket. I’ve recently been wearing less layers and keeping the pit zips open and that problem has been solved.

So, today we’ll catch the 1pm flight to Madrid from London City Airport. This evening Madrileño friends Marta and Manolo will host dinner and if there is time in the morning before the bus North it might be good to catch up with Maria Jesus the nun who used to sing in the cathedral in Santiago and is now posted in Madrid.

The bus will take us direct to Ponferrada where our journey begins. If all is trouble free then 9 days walking will ensure our arrival in Santiago on 7 January. I really wanted to mark the beginning of the Holy Year in this way. Goodness knows where we will all be when the next one comes around!
During a previous jaunt on the Camino Frances at the beginning of January the weather was dreadful and I got a very nasty chest infection. It came back later that year and developed into pneumonia. So with no apology we’ve booked hostals and hotels for each evening. We’ve used the services of the Camino Travel Centre to do this and I have to say the service has been excellent. Bus tickets have been e mailed with a full itinerary including addresses and contact numbers for all locations. Not only have they sourced places which are actually open over New Year, it looks likely that there may be hot food available at most destinations. The most precarious of these is on Hogmanay when the 31st will find us on the road to O Cebreiro. We’ll stay at Herrerías de Valcarce as there is nothing open on the top of the mountain. This is the evening where there is the greatest risk of there being no food or drink. Hogmanay in such circumstances is of course unimaginable to two Scotsmen so we’re packing emergency supplies of dried food plus a little lightweight travel kettle. The whisky will have to be bought, begged, borrowed or stolen. I promise to report further on that subject.

It seems there is a lot of snow around on the mountains but let’s hope the Camino route up to O Cebreiro is walkable. If not we will take the road. It will also be interesting to see how many other pilgrims are around bringing in the New Year in this way. Being the Camino Frances I expect there will be some. Maybe we’ll organise a party.

Since I won’t be here I’d like to wish everyone who visits this blog a very happy, peace-filled and prosperous New Year. I’ll hug the Saint for all of you including the pilgrim who asked, “Does making a Camino Hogmanay make you both Hogmaniacs?

Hasta Santiago. Hasta 2010.

Thursday, 24 December 2009

A True Christmas Story

In this pilgrimage of life some people find the journey very difficult. Loneliness, homelessness, addiction, broken hearts and ruined relationships are some of the paths which people take. These ways aren’t marked by yellow arrows but by pain and chaos, sadness and despair. All too often there are self righteous pilgrims who don’t experience any of these problems who leap to judgement. Theirs is the far superior way.

Pilgrims who cope with life or pilgrims who don’t, we all need respite sometimes. On Camino we find this in the Albergues along the routes providing welcome shelter and warmth. For other pilgrims they can be few and far between but they do exist. This is a story about one of them: the Ace of Clubs. No one is quite sure why it is called that. I reckon it is because as far as clubs go it’s the best.

It was started over 10 years ago and operates out of an old parish school behind the church in Clapham. It has a small staff of only 3 people. Nicola who runs the Centre and provides advice. Sarah who works part time hours and does more than a full time job. Manuel who cooks and drives. The Ace of Clubs is the only Centre in London open 365 days of the year. It operates a non exclusion policy. Everyone is made welcome. No matter the problem they will try to help. Last year they provided 15,000 hot meals and 3,500 one to one advice sessions. People can use the facilities every day for as long or as short a period as they wish.
People like Frank, who at the age of 45 finds himself homeless. He was made redundant from his job, got behind with his rent and lost his flat. Frank’s problem is he just can’t cope. With the help of Nicola at the Ace of Clubs he’s found a room in which to live. Slowly he is rebuilding his life. Or Jane, at 35 already addicted to alcohol and drugs. Her children were taken into care making her sad life even more tragic. With support she’s managed to become clean and sober. The Ace of Clubs is helping make arrangements for her to start spending time with her children.

But this story isn’t about the people who use the Ace of Clubs. Rather it is about the people of Clapham which has amongst the most expensive properties in London and the poorest housing estates. It turns out many local people were aware of the Ace of Clubs. We didn’t know how proud they were of it. That’s because the organisation has remained fairly anonymous since it began. All you can see is the queue that forms just before opening. For 10 years it has raised the money needed to run the Centre through gifts and donations and a Charity Shop.

In November however the money ran out. Donations had dried up. Usual sources didn’t respond. The effects of the recession. Sarah who works part time doing almost everything including raising money was making herculean efforts. But the future looked very bleak. Closure was imminent as there were no funds to pay the bills or the salaries.
Nicola who now runs the organisation and Sarah are two value driven and impressive women totally dedicated to keeping the place open. A few people got together to help them. The results have been remarkable.
First the cash strapped religious order, the Redemptorists who run the Parish and started the Centre stepped in with a life saving grant. Then the first task was to make the problem public. Letters were written to all local churches and organisations. A public appeal was made. Applications were sent to past donors.

Local schools and churches have always been generous in donating food. The rate increased. Two elderly ladies travelled two hours to hand in two bags of shopping. But the Ace of Clubs needed cash as well.
Donation envelops were circulated. The letter inside had a simple message, “ Help or we will have to close.” The response was quick in coming. From many different directions. A man handed in £5000 preferring to remain anonymous. Some people gave a few pounds. Others obviously gave everything they were going to spend on Christmas presents. Envelops were put through the letter box. A chap who uses the Centre donated everything he had. Each day that passed saw the people of Clapham and beyond responding. One lady heard about the appeal and phoned her former employer, Harrods. They visited almost immediately and offered practical help. They e-mailed all of their employees. Donations started to be handed in. Goods to be sold in the charity shop, promises of further assistance.

In the few short weeks since the Appeal was launched £64,000 has been raised. The Centre now has breathing space to raise more funds and plan for the future in a systematic way. It has been a worrying time for Nicola and Sarah but now they know the Centre is secure for the best part of another year whilst more solid foundations are laid.
The generosity of local people has been overwhelming. This evening the Centre was in darkness. The tables have been set for Christmas Lunch tomorrow. 80 meals will be served. We now know it will still be here to do the same next year. Happy Christmas Ace of Clubs.

Happy Christmas Pilgrims Everywhere!

Truth and Life

Wednesday, 23 December 2009

Tuesday, 22 December 2009

Sunday, 20 December 2009

5 Christmas Blogs

Towards the end of 2008 I sent a couple of Camino Stories to Rebekah Scott for her entertainment. In that very indirect way she has she said, "start a blog and get writing". In the beginning I was interested in whether people read what I write, now the pleasure of it has taken over. However I have very much valued the encouragement and appreciation of others on this little enterprise. Thank you for your messages both public and private.

Sometimes when I talk to people about the pilgrimage routes to Santiago they often jealously think that on pilgrimage we escape the cares of the world. In many ways we do, but we also take them with us. We think about them. Some pray. Others find hope in the beauty. This pilgrim does it to cope with rather than hide from the ugliness we have created in this world.

So this week as we approach this Christmas I'll post a few blogs of pictures and music on that theme.

Saturday, 12 December 2009

Five Christmas Crackers

In the last wee while I’ve been talking here and in the Pilgrims’ Forum about volunteering in the Pilgrims’ Office. A lot of us have felt the need to try and “put something back” and this is one way of doing that. A number of people have e mailed me asking about my experience working there. Some people are considering extending their stay in Santiago by a few days and want to try and help out, whilst one or two others are considering spending a month or so in Santiago. Whatever the time that can be given I am sure they will be grateful. For those working for only a few days it may well be that there will be a mountain of the carboard tubes which are sold to hold credenciales to be sorted out, or filing to be done or the left-rucksack store organised. One thing is for sure – with the number of pilgrims expected next year there will be lots to do.
Already the staff numbers have doubled to 23 with more people to be recruited. They will be supplemented by volunteers.
When I was there I grew increasingly fond of the young people who work in the office. They don’t get paid much. They have few breaks and in the summer months they deal with what seems like an unending stream of pilgrims from morning to evening. They try to be eternally friendly and welcoming but you can imagine how difficult that is when there is a 3 hour long queue outside the door with 200 already lined up by the time the office opens. But they enjoy a laugh and there is great camaraderie amongst them. They certainly took this slightly eccentric Scotsman to their hearts.
Because they see the sellos all day every day they know the stages of the routes thoroughly. But few of them are pilgrims themselves. Well at least not yet…there are plans afoot for them to walk the Camino Inglés. They know a good Guide they can use. But recently some of them made another pilgrimage…to London.
On Wednesday Pilar, Danny, Antonio, Cesar, Louis got up at 2am in Santiago to make the journey to Porto for the cheapest of flights to London. I had arranged to meet them on the pavement in front of Big Ben at 4.30 pm. And I had a surprise in store.
Making the arrangements to meet them was interesting in itself. I wrote e mails which went unanswered. I then had to write to the Boss asking if she would speak to them to find out when they were arriving. I got an hilarious reply asking me why I was being so impatient…didn’t I understand they are Spanish? But they got the message and communication was established and the meeting time set. I also had to convey to them the very British concept of “smart but casual” dress. I tried my best in Spanish to explain what I meant. I should have known though that the signs in bars and nightclubs all over the world are probably the same and I was rewarded by an e mail which ended: “estaremos en el Big Ben no jeans & trainners.”

Off I went with translator in tow in the person of Señora Maria the duena of La Terazza who comes from Santiago and is of course fluent in Gallego. We waited in front of Big Ben…and we waited. “How Spanish is this?” lamented Maria. Thank goodness she was the one to say it. But Big Ben has four sides and it turned out our guests were waiting somewhere else.
After we greeted each other, we walked along the pavement in front of the Palace of Westminster. “This is the House of Commons” I explained as we passed St Stephen’s entrance, “And this is the House of Lords.” They stood looking at the magnificent façade. “I wonder if we can get inside?” I asked. They looked at me and then at the policemen, security guards and doormen in top hats. I went ahead and they followed at a little distance. I had a brief word with a Top Hat and beckoned them forward as he opened the door.

His colleague called our hostess and after we went through airport style security we were warmly welcomed by the Baroness Andrews, educationist, and walker. If they were impressed to meet her in these surroundings, she was utterly taken by them and fascinated by what they do. She treated them as if they were members of the Spanish nobility. She showed them round, stopped to demonstrate the ancient voting system and arranged for them to have the best seats in the Chamber where they listened to a debate. She then showed us through the House of Commons Lobby to Westminster Hall with its huge Christmas Tree.
They were completely awazed by the place: the Chamber, the long Gallery, the Queen’s Robing Room, the route the Queen takes for the State Opening of Parliament. But one of the things that struck me most was how proud Kay Andrews was to meet them and to show them around.

All too soon the visit came to an end and it was time for food. In La Terazza of course. Being a Galician restaurant they could not have been more welcoming. The food flowed and platters of wine arrived. From underneath the table I produced a Christmas Cracker for each of them. Each contained a miniature Red Telephone box as a memento of their visit. They looked at the Christmas Crackers and then looked at me and then looked back again. “Errrr…what are these?” one of them asked. They had never seen Christmas Crackers before. And so we set to pulling them, bang, bang, bang, bang, bang. Out fell the party hats and telephone boxes. They could have been in Santa’s Grotto.
You should have seen their faces. I’m still smiling at the memory.

Sunday, 6 December 2009

Putting something back

Is there one of us who has walked to Santiago who hasn’t dreamed of running an albergue? Or working forever as a hospitalero receiving pilgrims in various locations along the many routes to Santiago? The urge to “put something back” seems almost universal. It is as if the experience of pilgrimage gives so much to us that we want in some small way to return the favour. For me I think the root of it was that feeling that on the routes we walk in the footsteps of millions who have gone before. Take the arch at Caparra which has stood since Roman times.

Think of the countless pilgrims who have marched onwards under that great stone edifice or made the journey over the Route Napoleon (below) from France into Spain to walk in procession along the Camino Francés or who were cared for or died of illness and injury in pilgrim hospitals some of which are still remembered in the names of places like Hospital de Bruma on the Camino Inglés.
As we go along drinking in the scenery, the company of others or walking in splendid solitude, the benefits of pilgrimage become manifest. This is a simpler way of life with all we need carried on our backs. The walking is balm to the soul and every step seems to erase the cares of regular life at home. There are few decisions to be made. We follow the arrows which have been painted by other pilgrims, we sleep in albergues for small charge or donation, staffed by other volunteer pilgrims, we use guide books written by pilgrims and occasionally we come across people like Rebekah and Paddy or Carmen and many others who have dedicated their lives to developing a ministry of hospitality for pilgrims.

Because of all that is given by the routes and the people along them many pilgrims do give something back. They work as hospitaleros or become active in local Confraternities or Amigos groups. In Spain they walk the route re-painting arrows or plan re-routing when road or house building disrupts the Way. Some people fundraise to help support the albergues run by voluntary Confraternities of many nations such as the two provided by the Confraternity of St James in Rabanal and Miraz. For the albergue in Miraz the members of the Confraternity have raised £100,000 so far and in preparation for the vastly increased numbers in the Holy Year next year they wish to extend it to provide extra facilities. The Spanish authorities have come up with a grant but the members have to raise an additional £25,000 very quickly. Everyone can do something…walked a sponsored walk, have people round to dinner and charge them, just send some cash!

No matter what route is travelled everyone arrives at Santiago and to the Cathedral and the Pilgrims’ Office. I’ve written before about what goes on behind the green door at No 1 Rua de Vilar. This year about 125,000 or so pilgrims will arrive at this Office to have their pilgrims passports stamped for the last time and if they have walked at least 100 kms or cycled at least 200 kms they will be issued with a Compostela with their name written in Latin or a Certificate of Welcome.

In the Holy Year next year a conservative estimate is that at least 250,000 pilgrims will arrive in the Pilgrims’ Office – and they are asking for volunteers to help them. What is it like to do this? Well, I’ve worked there as a volunteer for a few weeks on and off and it is all remarkably simple.

The Office is open from 9 am to 9 pm – maybe more next year. During these 12 hours at peak more than 1500 pilgrims per day are received. It is relentless. In season pilgrims start queuing from 7 am and the wait can be 3 hours when the line is at its longest. (below)
So what do volunteers do? When a new volunteer starts there is some orientation – the layout of the office, introduction to the other staff and volunteers. Meet Eduardo and Mari the two coordinators – they work two shifts. Generally Eduardo works in the morning and Mari in the afternoon and evening.

The three main functions of the office are to: Issue compostelas, run the left luggage facility where pilgrims can leave rucksacks for 1 euro per day, provide general advice such as maps of Santiago and details of albergues etc.

Volunteers are allocated a mentor, a more experienced member of staff. There is a short introduction to the IT system and everyone has a terminal which is part of the office net work. At 9 am the doors open and the pilgrims arrive.

“Siguente” is a familiar word…”next please” and the pilgrims come forward to whoever is free along the line of the counter. Over half of the pilgrims speak Spanish and everyone knows how to say hello so the routine is very simple. Either in Spanish or in sign language the pilgrim is asked for their credencial or pilgrim record – most simply hand it over automatically. Some also offer their identity cards or national passports too. Whilst not necessary I find these really helpful in reading what can be complex names to British eyes.
The pilgrim is asked to fill in a form…name, age, gender, nationality, for the Spanish which Autonomia or local authority area in which they live, their point of departure and whether they have travelled for spiritual reasons, spiritual or others reasons or not spiritual reasons. What they write has to be recorded on the computer but after a little practice it is possible to fill in the computer file as they write. This is not as difficult as it sounds. It is helpful to know how to ask where they are from: De donde eres? With a supplementary Que autonomia? So too is it important to identify the route. Often the Credencial states the starting point. Quickly you will begin to recognise the sellos and also the order in which they should be for the last 100 kms of all of the routes. It is a great help that the majority of pilgrims have walked the 5 days from Sarria.

After the pilgrim fills in the form the details are finalised on the computer and you look up their name in Latin – there is a computer programme to help with this and lists on each desk with the most common names. A little conversation helps as you do all of this. I usually ask “where did you start” “how many days did you walk?” “ how was your Camino?” Pilgrims aren’t used to doing things in a hurry. They want to linger and to talk. Let them talk – it is their moment. Our own pilgrimages are irrelevant! Spanish names can be complicated and often I have to ask “how do you spell it please” or ask them to write their name on a piece of paper in block capitals. Having filled in the Compostela or Certificate, offer congratulations, provide them with a map of the city or whatever else they wish.

Finally on a piece of paper you will record: Roncesvalles – 1 from Canada, 1 from Japan, 2 from Burgos etc. These lists are compiled to form the master list read out at the beginning of each Pilgrims’ Mass. Then…”Siguente”. And you do the same thing again. And again.
Often pilgrims ask complex questions or have problems. The permanent staff of the pilgrims such as Pilar and Rosa (above) office speak Spanish and Gallego and often at least one or two other languages or enough of them to communicate. They will always be ready and willing to help you.

A very few pilgrims are difficult. Some are tired and impatient after waiting for a long time. Others tick the box for “non spiritual reasons” and still want a Compostela. Some have stopped before Santiago: “I walked 300 kms to Leon, why can’t get a Compostela?” It needs to be patiently explained that the pilgrimage is to Santiago – not to Leon!

The there are the “trampas”, the cheats. It surprised me to find there are some. Credenciales with impossibly long distances allegedly walked between places or sellos from different routes amalgamated into one. Bus tourists often chance their luck to see if they can get a Compostela. The staff of the Pilgrims’ Office take their guardianship of the Compostela very seriously. I must admit to being a little more philosophical and try to find a reason to issue the Compostela than reason not to!

Then there is work in the background – preparing the Tubos – the tubes which people buy to hold their Compostela as an alternative to having them laminated in the shop downstairs. Often people ask about accommodation or for information on the route to Finisterre. They are referred to the two Tourist Office further down the street.

There is great camaraderie in the office. This can be monotonous work. But the staff support each other and have great fun. You will be joining a good team.

Working in the office is amongst the most rewarding things I have every done. There are very poignant moments as the last stamp is applied – “ Mira, el ultimo sello” “Look the last stamp” I frequently say often to be met with a tear or far-away look.

There is a downside. You have to find and pay for your own accommodation in Santiago. It is still possible to get a single room with a shared bathroom for around 15 euros per night and there are now one or two private albergues which charge 12 euros for dorm accommodation. Add to that food and regular living expenses and long term volunteering could be quite expensive. But the Pilgrims’ Office welcomes people working for a few days. As yet they have not set a minimum number but I would have thought pilgrims prepared to spend at least 4 or 5 days in Santiago would be most welcome and would make a good contribution.

I’m going to try to be there quite a lot next year. See you there?

Sunday, 29 November 2009

A star from the East

Yesterday a star appeared from the East. The star in the picture to be exact. It arrived in the post from the Island of Gotland which is in the Baltic Sea to the East of Sweden. It is a charming gift from Christine, a pilgrim, reader of this blog and regular correspondent. It will have a prominent place and shine on the journey to Christmas which begins today.

Over the next four weeks there will be a lot of preparation and a lot of fun. It is a time of the year I love and hate, sometimes in equal measure. But set against the crass materialism of this time of the year is also the sense of community and pilgrimage which can be engendered. My own programme is determined well in advance. Tomorrow evening around 50 people from around Clapham will assemble to form a community choir. Many will never have sung before. The inability to read music is the norm and the only requirement for membership is to join in enthusiastically. But by 9pm tomorrow evening this group of strangers who only came together at 7.30 will know each other a bit better and they will also be singing in three part harmony. The look of surprise on their faces when the three parts are brought together for the first time is always a joy. I’ve already prepared CDs of the parts so they can practice at home, in the bath, in the shower or in the car. Over the next four weeks they will laugh together and sing better and better. Many have no church connection but together they will lead a full candle lit carol service at 11.30 pm followed by sung Midnight Mass. Their achievement is quite magical. Perhaps more of that later in the season.

The route to Christmas is well waymarked. Special Advent services at 12.30 each Saturday attract 120 people who take a break from Christmas shopping on Clapham High Street. Then the Sundays of Advent with the music becoming gradually more festive over the four weeks. On Christmas Eve afternoon the turkey will be cooked and at 6 pm 600 people (including what seems like 300 children) will sing the first Christmas Carols at the first Mass of Christmas. A different 600 people will pack the church at 11.30 pm. Last year we finished at 1am on the dot. The community choir led an all-singing congregation in a rousing rendition of O Come All Ye Faithful, every stop was out on the mighty Hunter organ and all 1600 pipes heralded Christmas. The great procession left the altar and proceeded out of the church. Then a strange thing happened. Almost mischievously I segued into a setting of I’m Dreaming of a White Christmas. It was meant as a light-hearted voluntary as people left. Only they didn’t leave. What started as a few voices joining in led to every single person staying in their places and singing their hearts our once again. The confused priests who had been waiting outside to wish everyone a Merry Christmas as they left came back in to to see what the delay was!

Then on Christmas morning two more full houses at 10 and 12 noon followed by Christmas lunch and rucksack packing on Boxing Day. Well anyway – that’s the plan.

The last week or so has also seen another beginning. A new Guide to the Camino del Salvador. It has been written by three friends, Laurie Reynolds, Rebekah Scott and Piers Nicholson. In a few days it will join the other guides available to download for a donativo from the CSJ website:
The list of on–line guides is getting longer – The Camino Inglés, the route to Finisterre and Muxía, the Camino Portugués – from Lisbon and from Porto, and the Tunnel Route. These Guides have all been written by pilgrims and will be regularly updated as other pilgrims send corrections or changes or new information. The new Guide to the Camino del Salvador is excellent. Reading it makes me want to walk the route. It is a challenging Camino but the selection of Laurie and Rebekah’s photographs guarantees that there are huge rewards for the effort of climbing over the mountains.
Writing a Guidebook for pilgrims on the routes to Santiago has parallels in music. I was very fortunate to hear the late Erik Routley speak many years ago. In his day a prominent musicologist and composer he said that writing a memorable melody with meaningful lyrics was like throwing a ball at the listener. If you stand too near them they can catch it so easily they won’t remember doing it. Similarly if you stand too far away and throw the ball it will be so impossible to catch they won’t even try. What makes music memorable, he argued, was the composer’s talent in getting the distance right.

This definitely applies to Guidewriting. If the Guide describes every waymark and every turning and gives too many specific directions to “walk 200 yards and turn left at the phone box” then for me it can minimise the challenge and the interest. I think this can also apply to routes and I feel very ambivalent about the Camino Francés where nowadays it is so busy all you have to do is follow the throng and there are so many albergues placed at such frequency the only challenge is deciding whether or not to race the others to find the best bed. But like people there are many kinds of routes and the Camino del Salvador sounds like a corker and I think the authors of the Guide have got the balance just right and give enough information on directions and accommodation to walk the route without getting lost.

Walking the Camino del Salvador is now definitely on the list of routes still to be walked.

Now to find the right place for the star... thank you Christine.

Sunday, 22 November 2009

A toast - "To the new boots"

Last week I had the most wonderful lunch with Andy (photo) who has recently walked the Camino Levante from Valencia. I plan to walk this route at the beginning of 2011 so this was a meal of discovery for me. The route passes through some of the most historic parts of Spain. The journey starts in Valencia where I will no doubt meet up with Paco one of my camino amigos.
I first met Paco on the Via de la Plata a few years ago. We met in a small village which comprises only a bar and an albergue. I was walking straight through and Paco was sleeping there, but we shared a few brief words.
We met again the next day when Paco and an older German chap who had walked from Gibraltar sped past walking at 6kms an hour at least. We met up again many kilometres later at the wonderful albergue in Santa Marta de Terra, the Casa Anita. This place is owned by Anita and her ever helpful husband Domingo. As well as the albergue they run a bodega and produce their own wine. Limitless amounts are provided free of charge to pilgrims.

I parted company with Paco there and I thought I’d never see him again. Two years and many Caminos later I was walking the route to Finisterre with Esteban. We had taken the less travelled way to Muxía and then walked backed to Finisterre. Muxía is a beautiful fishing village and the route enters and leaves along the coastline. It considers itself to be the “end of the religious pilgrimage” and the Pilgrims’ Office there issues its own Certificate as does the albergue in Finisterre. Muxía is a place of legend where they say that the Virgin Mary arrived on a stone boat to encourage St James in his work preaching to the Spanish. It is said that parts of the stone boat remain on the beach in front of the Church of Saint Mary of the Boat, Santa Maria de la Barca.

On the way from Muxía to Finisterre there is a short cut into the village of Lires which involves negotiating sunken stepping stones. It is necessary to check the depth of the river, and on the day we were walking, we just managed to get across. By the time we did we were ready for lunch. Although small, Lires boasts three bars each of which appeared to be serving food. We picked one at random and settled at table. Across the dining room I saw a man and a woman eating lunch. The man’s face was vaguely familiar. Since the Big Man’s Spanish is better than mine I persuaded him to go and ask these strangers if we had ever met them before. It turned out to be Paco from the Via de la Plata. He had been walking the Camino del Norte and his wife had joined him in Santiago for the jaunt out to Finisterre and Muxía. But, they pointed out, Paco was really the pilgrim, for his wife this was just a short break. We left them after lunch with a warning about the river crossing and advice that it might be best to take the road route.

Never thinking we would meet again, we set off for Finisterre, stayed overnight and got an early bus back to go to the 12 noon Pilgrims’ Mass in the Cathedral. It was packed as usual and we squeezed into a pew near the front. I looked around and there they were…Paco and his wife, sitting in front of us. “Hola otra vez” we said. They were delighted to see us again. “How did you get on with the river crossing?” we asked. “ I was fine” said Paco’s wife with a mischievous smile ,"but the Pilgrim fell in!”

Since then my interest in the Camino Levante has grown and I’ve kept in touch with Paco from time to time by email. It will be good to see him again. And also to walk to Toledo where in a small bar on September the 11th I watched the twin towers being attacked and collapsing. The bar fell absolutely silent at the sight on the television with the only sound being the sad prophesy from the bar owner who said with a sigh “they will go to war over this”.
I'm very much looking forward to visiting the Cathedral in Toledo again. I remember that first visit when on entering the Sacristy you discover a display of pictures of which any art gallery would be proud. The great ceiling fresco by Lucas Jordán and painting after painting by El Greco.

From there the route heads to Ávila birthplace of the Spanish mystic St Teresa of Ávila then through endless meseta to Medina del Campo which still practices the quite mad (imho) Spanish “sport” of bullrunning where they let fighting bulls loose in the streets of the city leading then eventually to the bullring.
The route then goes onto to Zamora a very beautiful and much undiscovered Spanish city where it joins the Via de la Plata. In total 1300 kms. 7 weeks of fabulous walking.

Lunch with Andy was an inspiration. Much talking and much red wine. We were joined by Don Antonio who was fascinated by Andy’s Credencial with its vast array of sellos. I can see La Terazza offering sellos sometime soon.

I woke the next day with a slightly fuzzy head. It must have been something I ate and had of course nothing to do with the complimentary chupitos of home-made Orujo which Don Antonio insisted should finish the meal. But I was also excited. Planning a pilgrimage always does that to me.
Springing into action I phoned Esteban who I knew needed to buy new boots for the Hogmanay Camino. “Right Big Man, we’ll meet on Saturday and walk the 20 kms round trip to Itchy Feet in central London and then back to La Terazza”. And yesterday that’s exactly what we did. 20 kms followed by a plate of scalding hot Caldo Gallego then a plate of Cocido, slowly braised chicken, ham, pigs trotters, onions and chick peas.

Over post-prandial drinks the new boots were duly passed around the boys in the bar. They were thoroughly examined and after some debate about their merits they received universal approval. They just had to be toasted. Well … any excuse.

Sunday, 15 November 2009

Itchy Feet

Arghhhh. October is gone and the diary for November is full. My plans to return to the Madrid route to finish the new Guide have disintegrated. That will have to wait until next year. As the rain hurls against the window this morning I was drawn to vivid memories of walking that route earlier in the year. Crossing the mountains again into Segovia to stand gazing at the Roman Viaduct will have to wait. But my feet are itchy to be walking again so I have hatched another plan! Next year is a Holy Year in Santiago. Whenever St James's day (25th July) falls on a Sunday, the cathedral declares a Holy or Jubilee Year. Holy Years fall every 6, 5, 6, and 11 years: the most recent one was in 2004. The next Holy Years will be 2010, 2021, 2027 and 2032. The Puerta Santa (Holy Door), which gives access to the Cathedral from the Plaza de la Quintana is opened on 31st December on the eve of each Holy Year, and walled up again a year later. (For more on the history of the Jubilee year, the plenary indulgence, and the Compostela document, click here.)
Next year over 5 million visitors are expected in Santiago and the Pilgrims' Office estimates that the number of walking or cycling pilgrims will more than double to 250,000. Local authorities and groups of Amigos are furiously preparing extra accommodation along the pilgrim routes to cope with these vast numbers. On New Year's Eve thousands will cram into the Plaza de la Quintana to see the wall being torn down and the Holy Door opened. It is considered great fortune to pass through the door on this night and to pick up a fragment of brick. In the summer Joaquin the organist in the Cathedral invited us into the organ loft to witness the ceremony on CCTV and to have a bird's eye view of the ceremony which follows. I've thought hard about this and decided I'd rather be walking. For me this is a better way to mark the beginning of this special year.

So the flights are booked and me and companero Esteban will fly to Madrid on 28 December after a punishing schedule of Advent and Christmas musical events. We will make our way North to Ponferrada and walk into Santiago by about the 7th of January.

This is the approximate itinerary:

Ponferrada to begin walking on Wednesday 30 December.
Wednesday - Vilafranca del Bierzo or Pereje.
Thursday 31st - O Cebreiro
Friday 1st - Triacastela
Saturday 2nd - Sarria
Sunday 3rd -Portomartin
Monday 4th - Palas de Rei
Tuesday 5th - Arzua
Wednesday 6th -Pedrouzo
Thursday arrive Santiago

Total - 211 kms. A good walk. I'll try to keep everyone posted as we go along.

The weather is unpredictable and on my last winter camino I got a very nasty chest infection. I also experienced freezing conditions in some albergues. So using the new Camino Travel Centre I've booked hostals along the Way for this trip. It was all remarkably straightforward apart from the fact that it is not yet clear where we will stay or eat on the last day of the year, the Noche Vieja, or for us two Scotsmen, Hogmanay. But one thing is sure wherever we end up the bar takings will certainly be boosted that night.

One of the best pieces of advice I was ever given was to treat winter walking in Spain exactly the same as I would in Scotland. The cold can be just as cold and of course in Galicia the rain and wind can be just as fierce. In saying that I've also needed sunscreen and had to roll up my trousers into makeshift shorts in January in Spain. So preparations have already begun selecting the gear. I expect the rucksack to be heavier than the 5kgs I managed to get it down to in the Summer but the target is no more that 7 kgs or so.

The key, of course, is good layering with lightweight but highly effective "technical" clothing plus an outer rain shell.

As I've mentioned before on the message boards for the last three or four years I've relied on advice and supplies from a really good company called Itchy Feet They have two shops, one in London and the other in Bath. They also have an excellent on line shop. This is a company run and staffed by experienced travellers. They try out the gear they sell and they know exactly what they are talking about.

Over the years I've always advised people preparing for their Camino to only go to suppliers during the week to avoid being served by inexperienced weekend temps. That may be true of other companies but with Itchy Feet I've always found the sales assistants interested, knowledgable and quick to seek advice from other members of staff if they don't know the answer to a question.

And it isn't all about sales or profits. I went to buy walking sandals before going to write the Guide to the Portuguese Route as I knew it would be very hot. Alex in the London shop waxed eloquent about sandals he had walked in in very rugged conditions. Alas they aren't made in the size which fits me best. I was going to make do with a slightly bigger sandal but Alex was quick to point out I'd run into problems. I plumped for a pair of cheaper Tevas that did the job just as well.

I have also noticed particularly on the American message boards a number of people recommending Patagonia raingear. The Patagonia range isn't particularly cheap but it is very good. The R2 Jacket is for me the rolls royce fleece and is indispensable. I also purchased a Patagonia Rainshadow jacket as an outer shell. It sat in the cupboard for nearly a year before I brought it out recently to try out in heavy rain. It felt good. But by the end of the walk I felt cold around the shoulders and when I took it off my shoulders were wet to the touch. Without really thinking more about it I found a couple of complaints on walker message boards about these jackets not being waterproof. I wrote to Itchy Feet asking if any other customers had complained of this problem. Within a few days I got a reply. No they hadn't but they would happily send the jacket back to Patagonia for testing and if shown to be faulty then they would replace it or offer a refund. Really good service.

But that got me thinking. Had I been too hasty to assume the jacket was faulty? Heavy rain was predicted all of this weekend in London so I thought I'd try it out again. First I stood under the shower for 15 minutes. I was dry under the jacket. Hmmmm. Then a brisk walk in the rain. After an hour or so I checked again. Yes - I was wet. Then it dawned on me. This was condensation not rainwater. I'm cold blooded so I always wear layers and have to take them off when I heat up. No matter how breathable outer shells are if you generate heat and perspiration - moisture will build up. This time searching the message boards I found reviews which said things like..."and the only time I felt wet with this jacket was from my own sweat".

Therefore on the second walk in heavy rain I properly adjusted the pit zips for ventilation and wore only one layer. Result: Less wet.

Lesson learned. Take my own advice and try things out properly. But thanks to Itchy Feet for great equipment and a speedy response.

Roll on Hogmanay.