Thursday, 28 May 2009

The benefit of the doubt

Paco was 53. He liked to think of himself as a “gentleman of the road”, footloose and fancy free. But mostly other people just called him a tramp. This evening as he sat down wearily on the bed he was overcome with memories. It hadn’t always been like that.

Only just a few years ago Paco held down a responsible job as the manager of a factory. He was married to a lovely woman Anna, mother to their two daughters. As that memory came into his mind tears filled his eyes. Those daughters. Beautiful. The loves of his life. Sometimes, especially when he was tired, he had vivid memories of reading them bedtime stories and he could almost smell the scent of soap and freshly laundered pyjamas when he kissed them goodnight. He and Anna had been together since their early teens. They were boy and girl next door in a small barrio outside of Madrid.

Paco had been the most eligible boy in the barrio. He came from a good, religious, respectable family. His father was the local butcher. Paco did well at school and college and was considered to “have prospects”. Every one said that Anna had done well in the match.

At work he’d been a popular boss. Over 200 people worked for him. He was said to be firm but fair. Everyone also said that he was as honest as the day was long.

When people had problems they turned to Paco.

Perhaps it was the stress of the job or the fact he was getting older or the trouble having two teenage girls could cause at home. Certainly he and Anna had more fights then ever before. Maybe it was all of the above. Paco started spending more time in the bar on the way home. He had called in for two small beers every evening for years after work. Now he seemed increasingly reluctant to leave. 2 became 4, 4 gradually became 6. He got later and the fights got worse. Sometimes he couldn’t remember getting home or the details of the fight which ensued.

Anna laid down the law. Clean up your act. So he tried different things. To go straight home and have a few beers watching the telly. To stop altogther. He even joined a gym.

But soon he was drinking more than ever. He changed bars and fell in with a hard drinking crowd. The crowd included what in Spain would be politely termed "unsuitable women". He had an affair. He made the woman promises he couldn’t or wouldn’t keep. She became bitter and told Anna.

Confronted he confessed to everything including the fact that he hadn’t paid the mortgage for several months. He’d been destroying the reminder letters. To a panic stricken Anna he promised to put everything right. He tried very hard but his old friend booze called him again and again and when it did it always brought friends. The debts mounted. The building society sent an eviction notice which he ignored. Then another.

His colleagues at work had been saving up to send one of their terminally ill children to Disney World. A final gift. The cash collected over months was in the safe in the factory.

Paco told himself he would borrow the money to pay a few months’ mortgage and replace it before it was needed.

To celebrate the solution he went for a drink. He awoke next morning in a bed in a seedy hostal. He had vague memories of the woman he had been with. The money was gone.

Public disgrace. The repossession of the family home was the final straw and his marriage disintegrated. Unemployed and charged with theft he could almost have coped with the derision. He couldn’t cope with the look in his daughters’ eyes.

Reviled and rejected he found that when you’ve reached the bottom of the barrel there’s sometimes further you can go down.

He took to the road. He hated himself and other people in equal measure.

Like all Spaniards, Paco knew about the Camino to Santiago and its free accommodation for pilgrims and over the years when times were tough he got a Credencial which admitted him to a pilgrim albergue. There he could wash and sleep and often the rucksacks of the pilgrims made rich pickings to fund another binge.

In truth Paco hated pilgrims. They were too good to be true. All fresh faced and full of the milk of human kindness, their enthusiastic camaraderie and public displays of tolerance were just too much.

He felt the same tonight when he sat down on his bed in the albergue. He could see them in the kitchen preparing a meal, smiling, being nice to each other. But when they sat down to eat and the older woman began to serve he was almost overwhelmed by the memory of Anna serving the family at table. Then he heard them talking together. It was like Babel, many different languages and yet somehow they were communicating. At the end of the meal they went upstairs. As Paco heard them begin to sing together he followed them up. The room was lit with candles and a fire burned in the hearth. Their faces glowed. He hung back in the shadows.

A long forgotten prayer came to his lips silently. Slowly at first, then in a rush the idea formed. He would do the pilgrimage himself. Start tomorrow. Atone for his sins. Make a fresh start. He wouldn’t steal in albergues and he’d stay sober. He would do it for Anna, for the children, for the dead boy whose money he stole. He would do it for himself. He would walk with these others. Talk to them even. Maybe their enthusiasm for life would rub off on him. He planned to clean his clothes and smarten himself up for the morning.

The official with the stamp turned up later than usual and he joined the queue to get the sello on his Credencial, with a new resolve. He was now a real pilgrim. He handed over his Credencial with confidence.

“This last stamp is for an albergue on another route two days ago.” Paco flushed with the guilty memory of hitching a lift. His claim of being a pilgrim now met a stony silence. Then. “Please leave.”

Saturday, 23 May 2009

Meet a friend and fellow walker

I live in Balham in South West London. Named the “gateway to the South” because of its medieval coaching inn and, from the 19th Century, a railway station. Adjacent to Clapham, Balham is only 5 mins to Victoria Station in central London by train. It is a burgeoning community and in the last 10 years has embraced street café society. It has its own street market and adjacent wine bars and brassieres, home to artists and actors, business and working people alike. But there is a community within the community, the people who have lived there for many generations or at least all of their lives. Balham through and through.

There is a little tapas bar, where hangs my scallop shell from Santiago. The Musketeers meet there. Sometimes only one, often two, frequently three and from time to it is like a convention. 50-something guys catching up with each other, having a gossip. Some watch football and argue about it. Some talk about literature. Some are eccentric and others are just very unusual. But the place itself it like that. The owners are Manuela and Philippe. She is from Madeira in Portugal, he is from Sri Lanka. The tapas are…well…a mixture of both cultures with a passing nod to Spain. But the friendliness of the place overcomes the use of cumin, chilli, curry leaves and lemon grass. In-house entertainment is also provided from time to time when the volatility of their relationship boils over in public.

When I walked the Via de la Plata the crowd got regular bulletins charting my progress. As the discussions rage there is rarely a consensus. But there is a genuine affection for each other; mutual concern. Guys who haven’t been seen for a while are searched out subtly to make sure they are ok. The health of octogenarian Frank, originally from Madrid, is monitored closely as are Mark’s occasional departures from reality. The actor from the Redgrave family, the TV comedienne and Peter the Printer all add points of interest.

The founder member of the club is Sean, known fondly as The Future Mayor of Balham. He’s lived in Balham all of his life and is universally known and loved. He is one of the most talented and helpful people I have ever met. He is a qualified electrician but he can do everything. And if he can’t do it he will know someone who can. But it is his helpfulness and niceness which has made him famous. Sometimes he doesn't charge if he thinks the client doesn’t have a lot of money. It is impossible to walk around the streets with him without having to stop 20 times or so whilst he enquires how people he knows are doing.

He’s a real South Londoner (pronounced Saaarf Londoner) and he does a mean line in rhyming slang. Apples and pears (stairs), Borassic Lint (skint), Brahms and Liszt (errrr ..drunk) and Brown Bread (dead) are all staple parts of the vocabulary. More than this. Sean is a real Runyonesque character.
Runyan wrote about characters such as Nathan Detroit, Big Jule, Harry the Horse, Good Time Charley, Dave the Dude, or The Seldom Seen Kid.

Sean speaks about Nauseating Terry, French Connection Mark, Nigel the Niggle, Wimpy Mark, Rambo, and Bob the Tot amongst others.

The meaning of some of these names is self evident. Others require some knowledge of the logic involved. French Connection Mark has a house in France and needs to be distinguished from Wimpy Mark who is accused of being a hypochondriac. Rambo is well into his 70’s and makes delicately cast miniature historic figures for a living, Nigel the Niggle is a fine portrait artist who seems to have an eye for detail and Bob the Tot is a scrap metal dealer.

The latter required some research but I have been assured by the government’s Health and Safety Executive that the definition of Totting is as follows:

“Totting is the practice of sorting through waste by hand to remove recyclables with commercial value.” Now we know.

So when Sean mentioned quietly one evening that he’d told his doctor that he’d had a little chest paint and was being referred to hospital, the silence and concern was palpable. The musketeers assembled to get the results of the tests which had been ordered at the hospital. An artery was slightly blocked. The procedure to fix this was discussed in detail. So too was a fitness regime to get Sean ready.

For once a consensus was reached without a vote. Sean would join me in my daily walk every morning before work. This is a circuit of just less then 5 kms around Tooting Common.

Commons are the “lungs” of London. Huge parks. There is one at the bottom of my street. I didn’t really believe that Sean would come. But at 7am my phone beeped. A text message. Only one word “when?” I was round the corner at his house 5 mins later. Then next morning it was the same. Now it is a regular routine. It appears that Sean has been bitten by the walking bug.
Yesterday he was sporting a pedometer. As we went along Sean commented on the flowers, the birds singing, the ducks and swans in the pond and the mental health of the fit young people arriving on bicycles for an early morning swim in the unheated outdoor pool at the Lido in the park.

As we passed one of the markers on the track I though it might be an omen. I’ve started suggesting we might do a full day walk…and who knows what could happen after his procedure. The 1000 km Via de la Plata?

Good luck Sean. The Musketeers will be waiting for you.

Monday, 18 May 2009

Dear Diary – Camino Inglés - Final Word

Hola a todos

I forgot to include this in the description of the route. Enjoy!

Click here: Slide show

Saturday, 16 May 2009

Dear Diary – Day Four of the Camino Inglés

Hospital de Bruma - Sigüeiro - Santiago

Hospital de Bruma – Sigüeiro 24 kms
Sigüeiro – Santiago de Compostela 16 kms

Most people walk the 40 kms into Santiago in two stages, stopping off in Sigüeiro. But the route from Bruma is so flat and straightforward it could readily be done in one long day by stronger walkers.
We bade Carmen a fond farewell. I hope to see her again during the Holy Year, next year. We passed the cottage where part of the medieval pilgrims hospice is incorporated into the building and immediately we were on a long, straight and flat road. There weren’t any cars.

Then we walked on for a couple of hours strolling through hamlet after hamlet until we stopped for a coffee in As Buscas, 8 kms from Bruma. There is a new posh Casa Rural in the village and another one 2.5 kms further on.. More sleeping options for pilgrims and a sure sign the route is becoming more popular.

We soon set off again passing the quaint village church with a small 18th Century statue of San Paio, a child martyr.

Flat and green, we knew from the country side we were in rural Spain. A feature of much of this route we had noticed was the number of older women tending the fields or market gardens on their own. Were they all widows? Where were the men? “Playing cards with Benino,” the Guidechecker mused.

Our next stop was going to be Calle de Poulo and on the way there I answered a question which had been bothering me since the Guide was written. The original 2000 Guide described the route as going directly to the Church of San Julián de Poulo. The new Guide didn’t mention it. So where was it? The answer of course is that the route has changed and the church now lies off to the Right of the current route which passes behind it at some distance. Problem solved.

We felt slightly peckish by the time we had walked another hour or so and we hoped that Caroline, the owner of the O Cruceiro bar in Calle de Poulo would be out of bed and opened for business. After all it was nearly 1pm! The last time I was at the Bar the men of the village were waiting outside waiting for Caroline to open. I discovered she had been born and raised in England and her father had bought her this bar in his home village. She explained she was running it on her own and with the Spaniards’ late night eating and drinking habits she couldn’t open early in the morning. I put this information in the Guide so that hungry pilgrims arriving before 1pm could eat earlier.

We marched into the Bar and in English asked for “two steak pies and mushy peas” – Caroline’s face broke into a smile, “I heard yesterday you were coming“, she said. She saw my puzzled look and explained that the most amazing pilgrim had called in yesterday with a copy of the Guide and had mentioned that I was going to be around. This was Maime a pilgrim I had been in e mail correspondence with. Why “amazing”? Well what I didn’t know was that Maime is 83, was walking alone and commanded admiration from everyone she met along the route.

Caoline served us a plate of Jamón Serrano and tomatoes instead of steak pie and introduced us to her father. She explained that he had now moved back home permanently and was opening the Bar early in the mornings. Guide updated!
On the way I was taking pictures of sheep and lambs in a field when the shepherd who had been resting under a tree came over to talk to us. “Buenos días” we greeted him.”Are you English?” was his reply. We explained we were NOT English but Scottish. He laughed heartily at the joke and went on to explain in perfect English that he had worked for 30 years in restaurants in London and had come home to the village to look after elderly parents who had recently died. Now it was only him and the sheep. “Was he happy?” I asked a little nosily. “How could I not be?” he said looking at the sheep in the field. Indeed.
Then we made the push onto Sigüeiro. Although this stage is very pleasant and flat it does have a sting in the tale. 5 kms from Sigüeiro the route turns Left and there is a section of 4 kms where you walk in a straight line on a wide path between trees. It goes up and down. It is tedious and on a hot afternoon it seems to go on for 2 million kilometers. To pass the time until Sigüeiro and his first beer, the Guidechecker decided to recite the many faux pas of Johnnie Walker which entertained him on this Camino. The litany began…you did that BIG thing about the weight of your pack in the airport, I had to look away….you made us walk back along the route in Ferrol to get to the beginning only to walk it again… then you had the guy laugh at you when you asked about the number of pilgrims…sawing your tooth brush in half…taking 2 hour detours up a mountain…taking us to lunch in a restaurant that was closed, some Guidewriter… on and on it went. And when he came to the end he started the litany again. By the time we reached Sigüeiro I was planning the perfect murder.

There is very little to commend the route from Sigüeiro to Santiago apart from the fact the end is Santiago. Spanish pilgrims describe it as feissimo – VERY ugly. I wouldn’t say it is that bad and some of it is on pleasant forest paths. But it is boring mostly and I’ll just skip that bit and finish this tale in Santiago.

No matter how often I walk the beginning and the end are always exciting. This time was just the same. Catching sight of the tips of the Cathedral spires, walking through the narrow streets of the old town, entering the great Cathedral Square and seeing the joy of fellow pilgrims arriving from different routes, getting the final stamp in the Pilgrims’ Office and seeing the botafumeiro fly at the 12 noon Pilgrims’ Mass.

Then off to lunch. Afterwards we called in at a little bar for a post-prandial copa or two of liqueur. Perhaps it was the headiness of finishing the Camino or the effects of the booze or both but I overheard the Guidechecker chatting to the woman behind the Bar. She had been issuing orders to the waiters in a stream of colloquial Spanish but now she spoke to him in English. “Your English is very good” I heard the Guidechecker compliment her…”Well, it should be,” she replied, “I’m American”.

YES! Game, set and match to JW wouldn’t you say? Revenge is so sweet.

Monday, 11 May 2009

Camino People Series – Carmen, Hospitalera

A life in the day of Carmen the hospitalera at Hospital de Bruma

"In the old days I thought something wonderful would happen to me - now I believe that the most wonderful thing is that nothing wonderful happens. We are just as we are - nothing else - are we not wonderful enough? By only hearing the wind howl in the chimney, I am filled with all the harmony of music. By eating bread I am fed with the whole goodness and fullness of the earth. And when the silent mood comes, the calmness of immense seas and eternal spaces fills me...I know now that the things of greatest value can be had for the asking - that the centre of life is always near." From 'Soliloquies of a Hermit' by Theodore Frances Powys

Before I first met Carmen I heard about her from other pilgrims. Good things.

Pilgrims arrive at the albergue at Hospital de Bruma exhausted after walking 29 kms to get there from Betanzos, including walking up the “hill”. Pilgrims describe the albergue as being among the best they have ever used. Carmen’s welcome and her efforts to make pilgrims comfortable have a lot to do with that. The albergue is situated at the bottom of the small hamlet of Hospital de Bruma which in medieval times did have a pilgrim hospital. It is 2 kms from the nearest restaurant or shops which for a lot of pilgrims would be 2 kms too far! Carmen has sorted out meal deliveries from a local restaurant and she is known to arrange for her husband the ever helpful Benino to drive pilgrims to the supermarket.

I’ve met Carmen a few times and from the start she welcomed me with warmth and friendship. She has an open face with eyes that twinkle as she makes or enjoys a joke.

I had explained to her about this blog project of mine – Camino People – and after we had packed for the day we hiked back down to Bruma from Meson do Vento to talk to Carmen.

This was just like any other day. She got up at 8am and had hot chocolate with biscuits broken it to it as she does every day. Then she made her way to the albergue where three young pilgrims from Croatia had slept the night before. They wanted to walk to Santiago in one go and had left at dawn. The numbers are increasing she said. Sometimes they come in ones or twos. Nowadays there are more groups. She pointed to a plaque on the wall commemorating the visit by 30 Irish people who had sailed to Ferrol by boat to walk to Santiago. The day after they left 40 more pilgrims arrived from Pais Vasco. They had fun fitting into the albergues 25 beds!
We were sitting at the table in the kitchen/lounge of the albergue and I asked Carmen how long she had been here. Although she knew exactly what I meant her eyes twinkled as she said “53 years”. Seeing my astonishment she explained that she and her three brothers had been born in that very building which had been home to her family for three generations. Eventually she married a local boy, Benino, from Meson do Vento and they got another larger house in Bruma and her parents moved in with her. The family abandoned the house in the mid 1970’s. They decided to donate the house to the Ayuntamiento who converted it into the albergue with Carmen appointed as first hospitalera in 1999. “Was she pleased with it?” Her pride is obvious. “I’m delighted.”
She explained that the kitchen is largely the same although there are more doors and windows now. The albergue retains the traditional Galician oven where her grandmother and mother cooked. She said that she seen a lot of changes in the Camino Inglés over the 10 years. There are more. The waymarking is better. But her experience of the pilgrims has always been good.

A big change has been the introduction of a 3 euro charge instead of the previous donation system. She said there is less income now!

Another big change is that they provide disposable sheets and pillowcases.
Even after the passage of time she remembers one pilgrim from some years before, a woman from Ferrol who was very ill. She was determined to make the pilgrimage to Santiago and walked two days of 40 kms each simply praying “let me arrive”.

The albergue is open 365 days of the year and is left unlocked. After cleaning up in the mornings Carmen goes home for lunch at 1pm. She laughed when she said this and admitted her lunchtime is most un-Spanish.

At home she makes lunch for her parents and Benino. They usually have soup or pasta to start followed by meat. Unlike most Galicians they don’t eat a lot of fish although her favourite meal reserved for wedding anniversaries and birthdays is sea food.

“Every day.” She repeated for emphasis, “ Every day, Benino goes to play cards with his friends.” But they both make sure they are around at 5pm when the pilgrims start to arrive. After they get settled in with their Credenciales stamped Carmen makes sure they have food or know how to get it.

In the evening before supper they tend to their chickens, rabbits and vegetables – all for the pot. Then she usually watches some television before going to bed early.

“Then I get up next day and do it all again” she concludes without a scintilla of discontent.

As we left I felt very privileged to have seen into her life a little. Whether or not she had ever been outside of Bruma or outside of Spain was a question I left unasked. No matter the answer, I suspect she has far more serenity than a lot of world travellers.

Friday, 8 May 2009

Dear Diary – Day Three of the Camino Inglés

Betanzos – Hospital de Bruma 29 kms (+2 Meson do Vento)

The previous evening I had spent talking to the people in the Tourist Office in the square in Betanzos. I had explained that one of the biggest problems with this very beautiful route is the length of the stage between Betanzos and Meson do Vento. They were very familiar with the issue and the fact that 12 kms from Bruma there is a steep walk uphill. I explained that some pilgrims had written to me asking if there was any alternative accommodation along the way. They got out their maps and directories and demonstrated what they had researched many times before: there was no other accommodation on or near the route. We discussed the feasibility of getting a taxi to meet pilgrims along the way either to return to Betanzos or go forward to Meson do Vento. Their view was that the latter was the best option. I resolved to get the number of a local taxi in Meson do Vento when I got there. But first I would take a hard look at just how difficult this stage would be for older or less experienced pilgrims.

6am. No time to even imagine seagulls this morning. We were full of purpose knowing that a walk of over 30 kms awaited. We organised breakfast the night before although we knew that there were some bars open from 7am. The air was chilly but as the sun came up it was obvious it was going to be another very warm day.

We set off sharp. I was silent. It takes me quite some time to come fully awake in the morning. Not so my companion. He began to read the guide book out loud as we got started interspersing information about the route with updates of the football scores gleaned from the Spanish newspapers. I momentarily began to think murder might be the answer.

I think the thing that irritated me was the fact that I wrote the guidebook. And here was this smart Alec reading out my own instructions:

“There are sections of the stage today which some may find demanding. There are opportunities to top up on water on the way but in very hot weather it may be advisable to carry more than usual. Food is usually available at the Bar Julia some 18 kms from Betanzos but you may wish to carry some with you. You should also carry some energy food such as dried fruit and nuts or energy bars.

Whilst there are stretches walking uphill the rewards of this stage are many and you will encounter beautiful scenes and vistas.”

We had organised breakfast but not a packed lunch despite the advice I had written. But we set out with self assurance. We would have lunch at the Bar Julia only 18kms away, about 4.5 hours walking.
We walked steadily uphill out of Betanzos noticing that the new waymarks which have been placed through the route are particularly helpful in this stretch as the yellow arrows are very faded. And from the occasional figures of St James it appears that people are becoming more aware of the pilgrimage. Numbers are increasing every year.

This is a long stretch of forest paths and pastoral scenery. Before the temperature rose with the sun it didn’t feel like Spain. This could be Scotland or Devon. We remarked on how lush it was. The dew has been heavy. Silken cobwebs still glistened on the grass. Many flowers by the path were in bloom.

The sound of seagulls had been replaced by the sound of other birds as we walked through the woods. We stopped for a break and scoffed the half bag of nuts we had left from the day before. The temperature was rising but we were making good progress.

Just as were discussing how the scenery could have been in Scotland we passed a tethered donkey quietly grazing under a tree. It could only have been Spain.
Feeling hungry I explained to my amigo that we were nearly at the Bar Julia. The proximity boosted my confidence, “ We just turn left along here, go through what appears to be someone’s front garden, go down a slope, turn left on to the road …and there it will be.”

We did all of that. It was there right enough. Closed.

Worse than closed. It had a bag of bread hanging from a hook on the door awaiting the owner’s return. Hmmmm.

But the bread was safe and we beetled off down to the fuente at the bottom of the road to recharge our water bottles and prepare for the ascent in front of us.

The guide read that we would be walking uphill for approximately 3 kms or at my pace 45 mins. After that in a further 1 km there was another bar 100 meters off the route. This gave us an incentive. Lunch in 1 hour. Off we set.

To be honest the first time I walked up this hill it was daunting and exhausting. The problem was I didn’t know when it would end. Now I knew that the rise is steady and steep in places with an elevation of 400 meters in 3kms. 45 mins.

I had also discovered on previous Caminos that the best way to make progress for me was to refuse to stop. Stopping doesn’t get you any further forward. Far better to take the smallest steps or take a short break every 20 paces than stop completely.

Just before the steepest stretch on forest path there is a little house. Looking back the view is excellent. With much groaning we set off up the last stretch. When yet another section of path came into view I heard a not so soft curse beside me. Rashly promising double the fee in beers that evening we both made the final burst and we were there.

After resting we made our way to the Café Bar Vizoño. There was only one other customer. We asked the chap behind the bar if they had food. He in turn asked the person in the kitchen. His wife came out to speak to us. She was wearing wellingtons, a dust coat that had seen better days and a pork pie hat cocked at a cheeky angle. She was nice but explained that they didn’t have food. Undeterred we asked if she had some bread, “yes” she replied…and it was also “yes” to tomatoes and chorizo. She retreated to the kitchen finally understanding that if she didn’t feed us we might raid the fridge ourselves.

When she brought the food it was a feast. A plate of chorizo and salami, rustic bread and plate of the most delicious tomatoes and onion drizzled in thick green olive oil. This was the best thing we’d ever tasted.

“As for the Bar Julia” she said, “your guide is wrong, they only open by arrangement during the week.” Fortunately she told us this after we had eaten or the murderous feelings I’d had for the Guidechecker earlier in the day might have been reciprocated.

Then it was a breeze reaching Hospital de Bruma where Benino and his wife Carmen the hospitalera greeted us like long lost friends. I made arrangements to come back and see Carmen at the albergue in the morning and we made our way to Meson do Vento.
The greeting was just as warm at the Pension O Meson Novo. After putting down a large deposit for the amount of beer I had to pay for that evening and sorting out the rooms we had a chat with the family who run it. They speak English having spent some years in England in the catering industry returning to that very place 34 years before. The son Antonio explained that it was time to modernise…start a website, advertise. To make the point he handed me a handwritten leaflet. I asked him what this sentence meant, “ Posibilidad de buscar a peregrinos al Camino Inglés”. “Oh”, he said, “If pilgrims call us to book a room we’ll go and get them, bring them here and drop them back again the next morning. That should help with the Big Hill.”

Help? Problem solved!

Wednesday, 6 May 2009

Dear Diary – Day Two of the Camino Inglés

Pontedeume – Betanzos 20 kms

I woke up in the dark to the sound of seagulls. Again. No poetry this morning.

Although I walk a lot I’m feeling stiff. The effects of the first day, the sun and the cervecas no doubt.
Last time I was here writing the Guide I set off at dawn to walk the detour to the Church of San Miguel de Breamo which sits high on the hill above Pontedueme.

Over coffee the Guidechecker, reading of today’s route commented on the description of the walk to San Miguel de Breamo. “ Last time, you did this before breakfast and before you set off on the route to Betanzos?” he enquired with a look that said…” tooth brush sawn in half, walking the route to the beginning then back again and a 2 hour walk before the day’s walking began…” Pitiful is the message conveyed.

Along the top of the bar the breakfast buffet was laid out – a choice of cakes or biscuits. A couple of locals were chain smoking in the corner. They were drinking strong expressos with a slug of aguardiente. I’ve tasted it. It really is firewater. And after all – it IS 7 am, what better time for a drink!

In Scotland it is considered weakness to have even a spoonful of sugar in your porridge so we eschew the cakes and biscuits and I negotiate a tortilla francesa. Two freshly made 2 egg omelettes appear in a jiffy and Louis with a cosmopolitan air gives us each a sachet of ketchup. This breakfast is almost Scottish.

We set off in the cool morning air. The sky was clear. It would be hot again today.
The book says we are going to be walking up hill for about 3 kms. Very soon reality confirmed that the book is correct. We reminded ourselves that some people pay money to go to the gym every morning for this kind of cardiovascular exercise. We stopped to admire the views looking back and told ourselves it was worth it. And we kept walking up.

Soon we were warm even before the sun came up filtering through the forest track when the route levels out above Pontedeume. Different smells filled the air, pine, grass. Dew wet our boots.

Not far along this stretch is a seated area. Really handy after the walk up out of Pontedeume. There is a fuente where we topped up water bottles and rested for a few minutes.

A local man strolled past and we chatted to him briefly. I asked him if there were many other peregrinos. “Oh yes, “he replied,” I saw two English people, an Irish woman and a German, I think.” “Gosh,” I said. “That’s a lot. Was this earlier today or yesterday?” He stared…”no, in the last week.” He replied. My compañero laughed with the man.

More people are giving me funny looks these days. But as far as the Guidechecker is concerned there will be revenge. Rest assured.

As we left the chap we passed a nearby lavadero. These are washing areas in villages in Galicia and often people can be seen washing clothes. The water is ice cold and they are also great places to revive tired feet on a hot day.
Soon we took a right turn off the road and the route took us through rural Galicia at its best. Green and lush. In the forest birds were singing. Horses and donkeys sprinkled the fields.
We stopped very briefly at the Ponte Baxoi then we made our way into Miño. A right turn at the main road would have taken us to the very well appointed albergue but we carried on straight ahead out of town.

The estuary appeared on our right and we made our way down through country lanes to have lunch by the river. Every day should be like this.

Then as we set out refreshed I couldn’t resist some small revenge. “You see that motor way flyover up there?” I said pointing. “Yes, the one which is really high up. Well we’re going to walk up to a point just above that – but it won’t take long.”

It was above us
Then we were beside it
Then we were above it

But in all honesty it took just less than 15 mins to walk but it didn’t stop the question being asked halfway up: “When do I get my first beer?”

We set off down the other side through lovely lanes and paths until we were on the outskirts of Betanzos. There we hit heavy traffic and nearly got involved in a three horse traffic jam.

Tomorrow is a big day – early to bed.

Sunday, 3 May 2009

Dear Diary – Day One of the Camino Inglés

Ferrol – Pontedeume 25 kms

In that half sleep before wakening I realised that a childhood parody of the John Masefield poem was running over and over in my head:

I must go down to the sea again, the lonely sea and the sky
I left my vest and socks there
I wonder if they’re dry?

It was pitch black. The window shutters in Spain do a good job. "What is that sound?" Then it was clearer. Seagulls crying out in the dawn. Memories of seaside holidays long past.

Packed for breakfast at 7am when the place across the road opened. The lights have been on for ages and on the dot the woman opened the door. This is a huge café from the 1930’s. Original furniture and fittings. Behind the counter a man in white worked at a deep fat fryer. The sweet smell of home baking told us this wasn’t a fish and chip restaurant. So too did the mountain of churros on the counter. We ordered sweet café con leche, and orange juice. “Churros?” the woman enquired. I decided to try one. With sugar. Dipped in the coffee.

I realised in an instant that although it had the taste of ambrosia it was also about 1 million fat laden calories. I could be a churro addict.

A queue was forming. Restaurants collecting large bags of churros. Others taking them home or to the office for breakfast. “ 2 for me and 8 for the kids” a man ordered as we left.

An hour later we were eating a proper breakfast in a café in Ferrol just round the corner from the Tourist Office where at 9am prompt it opened to give us our Pilgrim Records and first sello. We were off.

My compañero had my guidebook in his hand and his job was to check it for accuracy. The fee for this service in daily end-of-the-day cervecas had already been negotiated. As we walked I mentioned to him that we were walking down part of the route to go to the beginning at the harbour. A few steps later the mad meaning dawned on him. “You mean we are walking backwards on the route so we can walk the same way again from the start?”
At the harbour we set off. From the beginning.

We imagined we were medieval pilgrims just off the boat from Scotland and we set off.

This was to be a day of sea views, sea gulls and glorious sunshine.
The route has changed mostly sympathetically since the first guide was written in 2000 and we took the alternative route by the sea mentioned in the guide and recommended by the tourist office.

On the way to Neda we encountered a new Camino in honour of San Andrés de Teixido but just before the route turns on to a beautiful new riverside promenade in Neda we left San Andrés behind. Santiago is enough for now!

Lunch on the promenade then more riverside walking past the Albergue before turning inland to climb briefly.
On this route you quickly learn that what goes up must come down. But on the Camino Inglés the climbs are very often rewarded by excellent views.

Today there is also some walking on the kind of forest paths we will encounter over the next few days. I’m also very fond of lilies and we find them everywhere. Growing by the roadside, in gardens, in fields.
As we walked on the sun got stronger. We had to apply more sun screen. The route felt as if we were in “real” Spain. We passed through small hamlets. There people were shy, eyes downcast when we approached but their faces lit up in greeting when we shouted “Buenos Dias”.
The sun was high and it was hot when The Guidechecker asked what was to be a daily question,“When do I get my first beer, please?” The answer was “Soon, but first let’s go to the beach” and, following the waymarks, so we did.
As we strolled along the beach at Cabanas 1 km from our destination Pontedeume, the temptation to go swimming was very strong. Another day perhaps. For now we wanted to get across the historic bridge into Pontedeume for our lodgings and dinner at the Bar Louis. 24 euros each for dinner, bed and breakfast. I also paid the daily fee to the Guidechecker.