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.

Sunday, 8 November 2009

The journey we make on our own

Remembrance Sunday, London 2009

Today the red Wreath of Remembrance and the white Wreath of Peace will be laid at the war memorial in Clapham. The Wreath of Remembrance is in memory of all of who have died in all wars throughout the world. The Wreath of Peace embodies our hopes and prayers that peace will prevail and that wars will be cease.

Today in the Book of Remembrance in which people write the names of their loved ones who have died an entry reads, “In memory of all pilgrims to Santiago”.

The pilgrims who attend this Church offer these songs to mark this day.

When I am down and, O my soul, so weary; when troubles come and my heart burdened be;
then I am still and wait here in the silence, until you come and sit awhile with me …
There is no life, no life without its hunger; each restless heart beats so imperfectly;
but when you come and I am filled with wonder, sometimes I think I glimpse eternity.
You raise me up so I can stand on mountains; you raise me up to walk on stormy seas.I am strong when I am on your shoulders; you raise me up to more than I can be.

Traditionally the Iona Boat song is said to have been played when the bodies of the ancient Scottish kings were being ferried to their final resting place.

From the falter of breath,
through the silence of death,
to the wonder that’s breaking beyond;
God has woven a way, unapparent by day,
for all those of whom heaven is fond.
From frustration and pain,
through hope hard to sustain,
to the wholeness here promised, there known;
Christ has gone where we fear and has vowed to be near
on the journey we make on our own.