Sunday, 31 January 2010

Sharing a cup of kindness

On Friday evening 35 of us gathered in the dining room of the La Terazza Albergue in Clapham. Some dressed to impress with tartan shawls or sported splendid bowties. Others wore walking shoes and body warmers. Some were seasoned pilgrims and others were curious friends. During pre-prandial drinks some ladies drank delicate glasses of pale sherry and at least one had a pint of lager in her hand. Gentlemen ordered their tipple, others closely studied the wine list. There was an air of slightly nervous expectancy. “A Galician Burns Supper” to raise funds for the extension to the CSJ Albergue at Miraz was the cause of the anxiety I suspect. What would it be like? Would it be interminable speeches? Did we have to eat the haggis?
At the appointed hour the chairman of the Confraternity of St James, Dr William Griffiths, called everyone to table. William is a wonderful character. A family doctor, he is also a veteran pilgrim and bon viveur. Friday’s event was on the eve of his retirement from being chairman of the CSJ for the last 9 years. He appeared to be demob happy and I was slightly worried by the half bottle of whisky peeping out of his jacket pocket at a jaunty angle. But William never let us down and at a signal from Chef Antonio he called for silence, welcomed the assembled throng and asked every to say the Selkirk Grace together. And so we did. A translation is provided for the uninitiated:

Some hae meat and canna eat, Some have meat and cannot eat,
And some wad eat that want it; And some would eat that want it,
But we hae meat, and we can eat, But we have meat and we can eat,
Sae let the Lord be thankit. Amen. So the Lord be thanked. Amen.

At the Amen the bagpipes were heard in the distance getting louder as they blared out Scotland the Brave and sheepish Spanish waiters Manolito and Duarte processed in with the Tapa of Haggis. Soon all were served and they followed that by distributing shots of whisky. A chupito for everyone. The atmosphere lightened. The food was great. Antonio had mastered the Haggis! Toasts were raised along the long L shaped table. Manolito topped up the chupitos from a giant bottle of whisky. Fellow diners introduced themselves to each other. Strangers conversed. Just along from where I was sitting it emerged one of the guests was a qualified Wine Master. Although wine as supplied with the meal she stuck to shots of whisky. Now there’s a woman after my own heart.

Starter plates were cleared and steaming bowls of delicious Caldo Gallego were served. More shots of whisky. Diners were nodding in approval. I’m sure I caught sight of a vegetarian tucking into the Caldo with huge gusto. I decided discretion was the better part of valour on that one. After the soup Antonio called me to the kitchen to ask how it seemed to be going. I said, “listen”, and we heard the animated conversation of 35 people thoroughly enjoying themselves. Antonio beamed and went on to serve the main course. Huge portions of lamb, salmon and chicken were brought to the table. There was also vegetable paella and I risked a glance up the table and was relieved to see all was well on the vegetarian front this time. Manolito and Duarte brought bottles of white and red wine. Two seats along from me a large jovial chap tucked in. He was a Consultant Gastroenterologist friend of two very experienced pilgrims. “So,” he accused them, “this is why you go on these pilgrimages. I thought they were about sin. Now I discover they are about good company, half a bottle of whisky before eating, huge plates of food and a man has just put a full bottle of Rioja in front of me. Where do I get a rucksack?” And all of this before dessert.

The season of Carnaval is nearly upon us. I wrote about the Galician pre-lent indulgences this time last year.(here) Antonio excelled himself and produced delicious hot filloas or crepes topped off with ice cream.
After the last spoonful the Chairman rose. He thanked Don Antonio for a wonderful dinner. He spoke about his pilgrimages and from his pocket he produced the half bottle of whisky encased in a leather holder. It was empty. William shared that he had been so daunted by the long walk in front of him when he set off from France he had filled the bottle with Agua Ardiente, Spanish moonshine, and that had sustained him on his way. Along from me the Gastroenterologist gave a satisfied look of “I knew I was right about you lot”. William finished by announcing that the evening had raised £1000 for the Miraz Albergue and everyone was very pleased with themselves. With an introduction from William, the Big Man, veteran of the Camino Hogmanay, took command and led everyone in singing two versions of Que Sera. The first was entirely in Spanish so he taught us all the chorus. As his fine tenor voice soared with the opening lines the waiters stared and nudged each other, La Terazza regulars in the bar fell to a hushed silence, Antonio’s head appeared out of the kitchen…not only could the Big Man sing… he was singing in Spanish. The entire place responded with the chorus. Then followed the more familiar, “when I was just a little child, I asked my mother what would I be….que sera, sera…whatever will be will be”. By this point it was full throated, unrestrained singing. Duarte the waiter decided to conduct with two salad spoons. A diner in another part of the restaurant asked Antonio if Fridays were always like this. “Only when the pilgrims are here” he replied. With that the assembly stood as one and sang Auld Lang Syne. Many a Cup of Kindness had been shared during the evening. At that Galician music sounded out through the speakers and Duarte started performing a highland jig. The astonished throng could only cheer when Senora Maria a Spanish lady woman of some considerable refinement spontaneously joined in. Fun is infectious.
It was with a slight cabeza I made my way to the St Albin’s Centre the following morning for the Annual Meeting of the CSJ. It is an amazing event attended by about 300 pilgrim members. All of us with strong opinions on everything. The business over it came to the 10 best slides section where individual members give a commentary. Fourth up in that running order was the Camino Hogmanay – the Film. I’d edited it. People liked it and asked where they could see it again. So here it is:

Sunday, 24 January 2010

Sundays on the Camino

A couple of years ago I compiled a series of articles about pilgrimage which were published in a weekend magazine. The project raised about 1000 Euros for the Confraternity of St James. One of the contributors was Marion Marples the Secretary of the Confraternity. Here is what she wrote.
Sundays on the Camino
My second day walking was a Sunday. I left the pilgrim town of Puente la Reina, over its beautiful bridge, before dawn and with barking dogs, crowing cockerels and the morning star for company. I felt brave and cool as I strode out, but the stoney path soon started to climb. The yellow arrow waymarks disappeared for a while in new roadworks but I followed the bootprints in the dust. At Villatuerta I caught the end of Mass and later the priest came to greet us. After a picnic lunch I joined two Brazilians for the walk to Estella where we stayed the night.

By the second Sunday I had walked about 100miles. As we set out before dawn we met the teenagers returning from their discos and were thrilled by a huge orange harvest moon. By 10am we came to a bar for a welcome coffee and then started the steep climb up the Montes de Oca, which in the Middle Ages were feared on account of the wolves and bandits. In the lonely forest we came with relief to the spartan monastery of San Juan de Ortega. Here the priest served garlic soup to all pilgrims.
My third Sunday was the best walk of all. After 2 days off to heal my blisters I felt refreshed as I set off alone from Castrojeriz. I climbed a steep track to regain the higher plateau as the sun rose dramatically behind me, catching the bright quartz in the path. The path levelled out but soon descended to a broad valley, full of stubble fields, with a distant view to a tree lined river. Villages and church towers punctuated the glorious landscape spread before me. After the open plain the path followed the Canal de Castilla, which felt like walking through a painting with deep green water, golden cornfields, blue sky and sparkling poplars.

By the fourth Sunday I had reached the great city of León. After Mass in the beautiful Cathedral we shared a pilgrim’s birthday drink at the San Marcos Hotel bar. I helped my new companion Anne reduce the weight of her rucksack by disposing of some surplus items. In the evening we indulged in heavenly hot chocolate at the Hotel Paris before returning to our very basic 5th floor hotel around the corner.

During the next week we had rain or showers most days. We also reached Galicia, a land of small hamlets and eucalyptus forests, very different from the rest of the walk. Arriving in Melide before lunch we found the pulpo (octopus) festival in full swing. However, we enjoyed an excellent plate of local cheeses and cold meats, washed down with local cider.

The guide book said the ‘last 50 kms are surprisingly arduous’, with which we concurred and were pleased to arrive eventually at a riverside converted 16th century pilgrim hospital. Everyone went to bed early. Only two more days to Santiago

It was wonderful to arrive in Santiago, stand before the great cathedral and contemplate all that had been achieved. I climbed above the High Altar and hugged St James, thanking him for my safe arrival and all those who helped me get there. The next day’s Pilgrim Mass was the emotional climax, as I stood among those who had made the journey with me. I’d arrived but I felt it was just the beginning of a new stage of my life!

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Great Chieftan O The Puddin Race

The 25th of January is the day the national bard of Scotland, Robert Burns, is remembered. On that night and around this time all over the world people gather for Burns Suppers. The format is traditional, with dinner, a speech called the Immortal Memory of Robert Burns, other speeches, singing and dancing. Much whisky is consumed.

Dinner begins with the skirl of the bagpipes and a Haggis on a platter is processed around the room. When it reaches the top table the host gives the Address to the Haggis. It begins:

Fair fa' your honest, sonsie face,
Great chieftain o' the Puddin-race!
Aboon them a' ye tak your place,
Painch, tripe, or thairm:
Weel are ye wordy of a grace
As lang's my arm.

It then continues in similarly unintellgible language which I for one don't understand. I realise this is heresy. So too are the plans for a Galician Version of a Burns Supper which we are holding in the now world famous La Terraza in Clapham on 29th January at 7.30. There is a four course meal and tickets are £30 per head or £55 for a couple. The restuarant is giving us the dinner for less than half of that amount so that we can raise as much money as possible for the extension which is being built to the albergue at Miraz.

All are welcome. 35 people have purchased tickets so far. If anyone who stumbles across this wee blog wants to come along just contact Marion Marples at the Confraternity of St James:
(+44) (0)20 7928 9988 or

A Galician Burns Night
in aid of the Miraz Refugio Holy Year Appeal
The Confraternity of Saint James in the United Kingdom
Selkirk Grace
Some hae meat and canna eat, and some wad eat that want it; but we hae meat, and we can eat, sae let the Lord be thankit. Amen.
Tapa of Haggis (veg available), Neeps and Tatties
with a Chupito de Uisge Beatha

Para empezar

Caldo Gallego

A continuación

Salmón con Sala Marinera
Cordero Asado al Horno
(braised prime shank of lamb)
Pollo Kiev
Paella Vegetariana


Filloas de Carnival

a Copa de Vino
is included with the fundraising meal
but please feel free to order and pay for your own wine
or drinks after dinner

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Holy Year Poster and Credencial

Posters advertising the Holy Year 2010 have been produced as has a special Credencial for 2010. Here they are. The Credenciales issued in previous years will still be accepted by the Pilgrims' Office.

Sunday, 17 January 2010

A Life in the Day of Joaquin Barreira Pereira- Organist of the Cathedral Church of Santiago de Compostela

"I usually wake up at 8am in my flat which is about 10mins walk from the Cathedral. I turn on the radio and the coffee maker. I listen to the news and drink my café con leche, sometimes with my eyes still closed. I usually have just toast for breakfast. Then I get ready and set off for the first appointment of the day which is almost always the Mass of the Canons at 9.30 in the Cathedral. Often I’m nearly late and have to rush into the Cathedral and up the narrow stone stairs to the organ gallery to play for the entrance procession. I find this first mass of the day the most satisfying and interesting. It is the principal daily celebration when the Chapter of Canons sing Lauds, a mixture of Psalms and other scripture readings then they sing the Mass. I play for the Canons as they sing the Office of the Church and then at the Offertory and the parts of the Mass. I play a voluntary at communion and then again at the end of the service. During Holy Years, when the Feast of St James falls on a Sunday the order of things changes a little at this Canons Mass and they sing the great prayer, the Benedictus, towards the end of the Mass.

I love this job and I am very happy to be playing in this great Cathedral. The last full time organist was a priest in the cathedral and he had been playing for many, many years. When he retired the Cathedral authorities called a meeting of a number of musical advisers. They began the search for a new organist. Eventually they had 5 candidates to consider, 4 from Spain and 1 from France. But decisions are taken slowly in the Church and by the Holy Year in 2004 the matter had still not been resolved. My friend, Manuel was playing part time to fill in and he asked me to help. The Cathedral authorities liked the arrangement and asked me to stay. Manuel and I still share the playing to this day.

I have many wonderful memories of events in this Cathedral. Fabulous weddings. Royal occasions like the Feast of St James in a Holy Year when the King and Queen of Spain attend Mass. Sometimes there are huge, complicated processions and at other times such as Midnight Mass at Christmas the atmosphere is much more intimate.

Every day of the year at 12 noon I play for the Pilgrims’ Mass. There are few pilgrims in January but by the late spring the Cathedral is bursting at the seams. Pilgrims sit everywhere. On steps, on the floor. They come with their rucksacks if they have just arrived in time for Mass. Priests who have walked the Camino walk in the procession and you can see their boots under their vestments. My fondest memories are not of when the King was there, or Cardinals but rather Pilgrims’ Masses. I remember one in May a couple of years ago when there were an enormous number of Germans. When Sister Maria Jesus the nun who sang at that time intoned the Kýrie eléison at the start of Mass the response from the congregation was so loud it was as if everyone was singing at the top of their voices. There is a telephone just behind the pulpit which links to a telephone on the organ. Maria Jesus telephoned me to suggest that we use the rest of the same musical setting of the mass as for the Kyrie, the plainchant Missa Orbis Factor. Everyone sang everything. It was magical.

Maria Jesus has now moved to Madrid cathedral and I miss her a lot. She started singing at the Pilgrims’ Mass 10 years ago. Before 2004 there was only an organist at the mass when the Botefumeiro was in action. Traditionally whoever is singing chooses the musical programme. I tend to arrive no earlier than 5 minutes before mass begins and the nun calls me on the telephone to tell me what to play. I then turn on the organ and the little television that sits on top of it. On that I can see the procession so I know when to begin playing.

Like most other professional organists I pick up other jobs to earn a living. Sometimes I have a few pupils but I don’t really like teaching. Playing and performing is my thing. Anyway the daily commitment to the Cathedral makes it difficult to take on other work. After the first mass I generally go to the Hotel Costa Vella to have coffee and read the newspapers. Then back to the cathedral for 12 noon. At 1 pm I try to eat something, but I’m not a big eater. I try to practise on the organ or on a piano every day. Sometimes I’m in the cathedral late into the night when the cleaners have gone home. Then it is peaceful and I can have the place to myself.

There has always been music in my life. My father sang really well and played the classical guitar. I was also very lucky that when I went to junior school at the age of 5 in my home town of Caldas de Rei on the Camino Portuguese. We had a superb music teacher who was also a church organist. From the age of 9 – 13 I went to the Escolania, the Music School of the Cathedral. There were 28 boys. We had normal schooling and lots and lots of music. I then went to the Conservatoire in Santiago for piano lessons and then to Barcelona for organ tuition. At first I went there for 20 days at a time. Then they enrolled me full time for 4 years organ study.

I love the organ in the Cathedral. The present instrument is the result of 300 years of evolution. It looks Baroque and has Baroque features. It also has some later Romantic elements. The rest is 20th Century. Until 1947, when there was a huge renovation, there were two organs, independent of each other on each side of the Nave. It then became one organ with two bodies. From 1947 only one organist was needed! Some of the organ is original. The Cornetta stop with its 5 ranks of pipes dates from the 1780’s.

This Holy Year we are having 4 Pilgrims’ Masses every day to cope with the huge numbers expected. There are Masses at 10am, 12 noon, 6pm and 7.30pm. The King will be here on 25th July and there are rumours that the Pope will also come to Santiago. Funnily enough traditionally the biggest and most important feast is not on the 25th July but rather it is the Feast of the Translation when the arrival of St James’ body is commemorated.

In the evening I might have my most favourite meal which is fried eggs and rice. I’m currently re-reading George Orwell’s 1984. I frequently dream and a recurring dream is me sitting in a flying chair visiting places all over the world. I have few wishes. I suppose I would wish for health, music always in my life and peace in the world. Strangely enough if I could only have one piece of music it wouldn’t be on the organ it would be the Missa Papae Marcelli by Palestrina which for me encapsulates everything that is wondrous in music.

I often don’t go to bed until very late. Sometimes 2am. Currently I’m working on a secret project. Last year I played for the 25th Anniversary Service of the Confraternity of St James in London. It was a wonderful visit and it had been arranged that I would play the organ in Westminster Abbey. At the Confraternity Service they had a re-enactment of the Botafumeiro and everyone sang the Hymn to the Apostle or what is known as the Botafumeiro Music. Afterwards I told my friend Johnnie Walker the history of the piece. The tradition used to be that every Holy Year a new Hymn to St James was composed to accompany the Botafumeiro. That stopped in 1920 when people liked the new hymn so much it is still being used today. Inspired by this he suggested that for this Holy Year I compose an organ voluntary for pilgrims incorporating melodies from many countries. So far I’ve worked out 15, but he has now set the target at 25. It is driving me crazy. But maybe it will be unveiled later in the year… "

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Camino Hogmanay - the Film

Hola a todos. Back in London. Brrrrrrrr. Go on pour a glass of mulled wine, turn up the sound and press play. Enjoy.

Wednesday, 6 January 2010

Gifts of the Camino

Today - Arzua to Pedrouzo 19 kms
Tomorrow - Pedrouzo to Santiago 19 kms

We awoke to the Feast of the Kings. No gifts had been left in our boots. In fact there was a strange mood in the air all round. Neither of us said much. We established that the predicted snow had not fallen. Even that didn't raise our spirits.

We were both aware that Santiago was now less than 40 kms hence. In summer like many others we may have set off before dawn to reach the Cathedral on the same day.

Winter pilgrims have to plan differently. Weather forecasts become essential viewing. So too does working out departure times because it is not light at this time of the year until between 8.30 and. 9am. Take today for example: had we chosen to leave at first light then we would have covered the 19 kms of the etapa in 5 hours arriving at 2pm at the latest. There would have been nothing to do apart from find an open bar. For everyone that can be boring for Scotsmen it can be disastrous.

So we took our time packing and having breakfast. The woman in the bar gave us cake we hadn't ordered. She was very friendly. It was exactly this kind of simple kindness we were reluctant to leave behind. We knew that when we left we would be moving even closer to the end of this journey. We also knew that not all of our walks have been pilgrimages. This had been and it was drawing to a close.

We left our empty hostal having stamped our credenciales with the lonely sello on the counter and set out in the bitter cold. Within half an hour as the route rose before us we were warmed with the exercise. The sun came through. In the distance on the main road we saw snow ploughs spreading grit for the bad weather which thankfully didn't come today.

Eventually we chatted about our journey from Ponferrada: The woman in the hostal who gave us hand made sweets, the German girls who gifted powerful teabags. The man who put an extra heater in the room. The day the sun came out to change everything. The bowl of soup after our miraculous ascent to Cebreiro. The nods and smiles of the few pilgrims we had come across. Our own friendship affirmed and deepened. The space we had been gifted to enjoy the Camino Frances in splendid solitude.

I have always felt ambivalent about this route. The case against for me are the crowds, the tourists, the advertisements for Bacon and Egg Breakfasts and the summer race for beds. But for us on this pilgrimage the route had revealed its beauty and its promise.

Today our walking day was short but by 2pm or so we were hungry. We turned into one of the few bars we had seen open. We asked about food and the woman set about making us omelettes. This was a pilgrim place and we were surrounded by memorabilia. As she put down our food I gave an involuntary shiver. A few moments later she wheeled over a portable gas fire and turned it up beside me without saying a word.

As we lingered letting time pass she asked us in very good English where we were from. She herself was born in Bilbao but had returned to her parents who were from this very village. She said she loved being with pilgrims and in the year to come she hoped pilgrims outnumbered the tourists. Then without prompting she appeared with two copas of liqueur and two conchas. "Gifts for you two pilgrims on the Feast of the Kings", she said. From my rucksack we presented her with the little CSJ Spiritual Companion. The mutual generosity was spontaneous and very real. She embraced us both. All of our eyes glistened with the power of the fellowship of the instant.

We had to move on but before we did Rosa Maria asked us to dedicate the wee book to her.

That brings me to the dedication of this pilgrimage. Our journey ends tomorrow in a day when private intentions will be expressed. This is the final post and I won't post again until back in the UK. But I promise that tomorrow as well as personal thoughts I will also think of all of my pilgrims friends particularly those who have supported this Camino with prayers, messages and visits to this wee blog. I'll hug the Saint for all of you.

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Tuesday, 5 January 2010

A different story

Palas de Rei - Arzua 28kms

As I write I'm under a blanket with a warming cup of soup at my side. The temperature has dropped and snow is predicted. The Hostal Rua in Arzua feels like the Marie Celeste. The owner opened the door, showed us our room, asked us to leave the keys on the table in the morning and left quickly. He had to get home. It is the eve of the Feast of the Kings, a fiesta almost more important than Christmas to Spaniards. In days gone by it was tomorrow presents were given. Nowadays they are given at Christmas and on 6th January when the arrival of the three kings with their gifts for the baby Jesus is commemorated. Tonight children large and small will put out their shoes and hang up stockings in the hope they will be filled with presents. The tradition is that gifts are for children who have been good in the last year. Bad children receive lumps of coal. Not to worry every confectioner sells coal made of candy!

On TV as we hang our own stockings up to dry are reports of the magnificent Cavalcade of the Kings which takes places in cities, towns and villages throughout Spain. In Madrid more than 500,000 people are lining the streets as the parade passes with gigantic statues of the three Kings. Millions of sweets are thrown into the crowd from the magnificent mobile displays.

The scenes from Madrid are quite different from the Camino Frances today. We set out alone at 9am when it was light. It was very cold but the air was clear. We set a good pace both for warmth and because of the length of the etapa. Our spirits were high. Sun was forecast later in the morning. Soon after leaving Palas de Rei we encountered a section of Camino which was badly flooded. There was no way around. There were 20 or so stepping stones protruding from the water but they looked like the middle section of a bridge when both ends were missing. We commanded the water to part in the name of Santiago and when it didn't we then slid and slithered our way over using sticks for balance and to test the depth as we picked out sunken stones on which to tread. We had to make sure the water never reached the top of our boots. At last we were over, with our feet still dry.

From then on the route revealed its winter beauty. We walked along forest paths lined with trees wearing overcoats of ivy and moss. Their fallen leaves still carpeted the path before us in every hue of brown imaginable. The skies were blue and the sun broke through. This was perfect walking.

All of the bars were closed although we called in at one or two open and well heated albergues. They stood empty waiting the invasion the Holy Year will bring. But still no other pilgrims.

Thoroughly enjoying the day we walked along the path beside the main road on the approach to Melide. Cars raced past. Suddenly there was a screech of brakes. A car stopped and a familiar head appeared at the open window. It was Maria the journalist who had encountered us in Triacastela. She had easily recognised Little and Large striding along the roadside. "How have you got on?" She asked. "It has been wonderful", we replied. The route is beautiful, the facilities for pilgrims are excellent, the sun is shining and we are two days from Santiago." We enthused. "No problems?" She persisted. " Just a little flooding" we answered. "You see I've been sent out on a different story," she explained, "this time I'm looking for bad experiences on the Camino, the ugly side of things." From our reaction she could tell we were the wrong people to ask. "Maria," we tried to explain, "it isn't like that, you need to pack a rucksack and walk the route to see that." We bade her farewell and set off into Melide with me silently wishing her editor gets stockings and shoes full of real coal tonight. But the encounter started a debate - how is it possible for people to understand the wonderful benefits of the pilgrimage to soul, mind and body if they don't experience it? As if to prove the point 15 minutes later we were welcomed into a small bar. We were starving and cold. Within a few minutes boiling caldo was on the table followed by piping hot braised lamb shanks. The delicious meat just fell from the bone. The people at the bar warmly wished us "buen viaje" when we left.

Fully restored we set a good pace for the afternoon. We continued on wide forest avenues. At one point I turned and there was another pilgrim right behind me. This was Jack from Holland. His English was perfect. He had started at St Jean de Pied Port 4 weeks and three days ago. He was lean, fit, and walking fast. Still vexed by the encounter with Maria I was going to ask him if he had experienced any bad or ugly aspects to his Camino. I simply asked him how it had been and he positively glowed.

All of this was still going round in my head when we began the long climb into Arzua. As I panted to the top of the surprisingly sustained incline I realised that my exertions had erased all thoughts of negative questions. I looked back down at the hill and it said, "that's what I'm here for. Buen Camino."

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Monday, 4 January 2010

All creatures great and cured

Here is the news: Esteban who has been suffering from a bad cold for most of this trip is cured. Yesterday we arrived in Portomarin having walked 23 kms and despite our hostal having faulty heating the first clue was that the deep of the night was not broken with the sound of the wracking coughing of the last week. Perhaps the cure had been effected by the excellent dinner we enjoyed in the O Mirador restaurant and albergue in front of a roaring log fire. The huge glass windows give panoramic views of the river and we watched the daylight fade whilst enjoying a dinner of a gigantic tureen of boiling soup followed by steak and chips and finished with vanilla and chocolate ice cream. All washed down with a bottle of Tinto which we mixed with Casera. The price for this Menu del Peregrino was a princely 9 euros.

We awoke to a very dreich day. "Dreich" is a wonderful old Scottish word which the dictionary defines as an adjective describing weather which is cold, misty, drizzly, overcast and miserable. That was the weather today in spades. The river could no longer been seen through the shroud which had settled. As we set off we nodded to the small group of pilgrims standing at the taxi rank and then never saw another rucksack for the whole 25 kms to Palas de Rei.

As we climbed out of Portomarin the Big Man started talking. A lot. This was him back to normal. "You know this part of the route would be beautiful if we could see anything" he remarked as we walked through the mist. A few minutes later as the path levelled out he and his rucksack leapt into the air and he kicked his heels. This was quite a frightening sight from someone who at 6'4 is 9 inches taller than me. What then followed was a rendition of the song Vamos Caminando quickly followed by a hastily composed "Where have all the pilgrims gone, long time passing...taken taxis every one...when will they ever walk...when will they ever walk." "I take it you are feeling better?" I enquired, "certainly!" He replied, "and very soon I am going to eat this KitKat which I have been carrying since the last decade." I've spent a life time in Mental Health so I realise that at times it is best to remain silent. We walked in companionable silence for many kilometres and equilibrium seemed restored.

We discovered that most of the regular facilities of the Camino Frances were closed and we had walked almost 12 kms before we found a bar open. On the way there we walked above the worst of this mist at Castro Maior. When we walked through the village 4 men were washing down a large pig which they had obviously slaughtered just minutes before. This will be butchered for the village fiesta to celebrate the Feast of the Kings in 2 days time. Much of it will also be cured in various forms.

The bar on the edge of the village was closed so we sat at the side of the road and shared the KitKat which had been purchased on New Year's Eve. The dull and dank weather continued for the rest of the afternoon and we were glad to reach Palas de Rei.

On the way I noticed a discarded box for Nicotine Chewing gum. Perhaps it had been thrown away by someone whose New Year resolution is to give up smoking. I was cured of that addiction some years ago and know how hard it is so I wish them well.

As for me, my New Year's resolution is to never attempt to kick my heels with or without a rucksack.
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Sunday, 3 January 2010

Legends in our own lunchtime

I need to start with an apology. The way I'm posting blogs means that I don't see what is posted until I am either in an Internet Cafe or a WiFi area. The few times I've been able to log on with WiFi I have been able to see the comments which have been left but I can't post comments in reply. Thank you all for your words of encouragement, they have been much appreciated.

I think that mobile phone charges from abroad are a complete rip off. I was therefore delighted when last summer my provider provided calls from Spain at the home rate. I use a Blackberry for working as well as pleasure and because I am away from home so much I need to keep doing emails. That's what I did in August on the Madrid Route. I posted blogs with pictures, answered emails and sent myself notes for a new Guide. What I hadn't realised was that the substantial reduction in price applied to phone calls and texts, not internet use. The bill could have funded several good lunches in La Terazza.

Another pilgrim taught me how to blog much more cheaply by email by logging on, pressing "send", then immediately logging off again then resisting the temptation to use the internet to check if it has been posted.

Economics apart, we wanted this to be a pilgrimage and not just a walk, so with the exception of a New Year text to family and sending a post into cyber space each evening I've been out of touch. However yesterday in Sarria I had to go to an internet cafe to check an email about our accommodation. There was an email from a friend currently in Santiago - "John, you are in the newspaper!" Never has a Voz de Galicia been purchased so quickly. " Two Scots, John and Stephen from Glasgow were the first two pilgrims to enter Galicia on the Camino Frances in the Holy Year" the story ran. I was astonished. In Triacastela just as we crossed the road to search for our hostal a lassie stopped her car in the middle of the road. She wound down her window and shouted, "are you pilgrims?" We nodded.
"Where did you travel from?" She asked ignoring the traffic behind her. When we replied she shouted, "wait, I need to talk to you." She raced off to park her car some way down the road. We soon found out that rather then asking if we had seen a lost friend she was a journalist who wanted to ask questions. We were tired to the point of exhaustion and answered briefly whilst trying to edge away from her. We confirmed we had walked over the mountain to Cebreiro and I showed her some photographs of the snow and our passage into Galicia. She wanted to go and fetch a camera but by that point we could just have closed our eyes. We wished her a happy New Year and went off to find the Casa Olga. We thought nothing more of it until we saw the newspaper the next evening.

Over dinner we read the story again. The normally shy Big Man showed it to the barman who was suitably impressed. All the more so when we taught him the secret alchemy of making hot toddies. After a few we had scaled Everest and we were preparing for a press conference on our entry into Santiago.

Needless to say we slept soundly and after coffee set off from Sarria the next morning in the rain. The day was grey and there was water everywhere. The thaw had caused flooding in many parts of the route. Streams were overflowing their banks and water cascaded down walls from the fields above.

For a while we tried to pick our footing carefully but after a while we simply checked the depth of the water blocking our way and then charged forward. Thank goodness for Goretex. By noon we were starving and in a little bar we wolfed down a tortilla francesa and bacon - nearly the bacon and eggs of home. We met two Spanish pilgrims, the only others we saw all day.

The rain went off making walking more pleasant but long stretches of the path remained waterlogged. We took each other's pictures at the 100 kms waymark and proceeded ahead. After a short distance we looked into a tiny wayside chapel where pilgrims have adorned the altar with petitions and prayers. As we stepped back onto the path we encountered a wee man in green wellington boots. "Be careful" he said, "there's a lot of water ahead". We shook his hand, " don't worry", we said, "we're Scottish." The implication being of course that we were the recent heroes of Cebreiro and had the sello to prove it. Obviously he didn't recognise us because he laughed and said, " Scotland or Galicia, water is water." We knew what he meant when we turned the corner and at least 100 metres of the route was a fast flowing torrent. Obviously this has happened before because there were granite stones up the centre. Only they were submerged. We made our way carefully water coming up to ankle level at times.

As we passed Fin de Ferreiros the sun came out and we walked the 9kms to Portomarin in glorious sunshine. The beauty of the route was revealed. We were glad to be pilgrims and thoughts of our fame disappeared with the clouds. However at one point we looked back and two windmills stopped generating electricity for a moment and waved at us. They knew who we were.
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Saturday, 2 January 2010

What a difference a day makes

Days 3 and 4 - Herrerias - Triacastela 28 kms Triacastela - Sarria 18 kms.

The Cebreiro expedition was very tough followed by a freezing walk along the road. There is a waymark to the right off the road just past Linares followed quickly by a granite waymark. Both point ahead. However in the snow corrective ground markings are obscured. It is easy to go wrong. We were lucky to be redirected by a kind man walking his dog. Later we found out that a poor pilgrim 5 days earlier who had successfully crossed the mountain then got lost and arrived in Triacastela 15 hours after his departure from Herrerias.

Eventually I'll post photos on the Cebreiro section. In many ways it was wonderful. We were concerned at the snow fall on the first section but two 4 wheel drive cars cut a path ahead of us. We walked in their tracks and made good time. We passed a car which had skidded into the ditch sometime the previous evening. When we reached La Faba we had a decision to make but as the morning was clear and we knew that the 4kms to Cebreiro was broken half way at La Laguna we turned right and headed up the snow covered path. All became white. Beautiful. As we ascended it got colder and the snow deeper but we checked carefully that the contour of the path was clear ahead and that our footsteps behind remained obvious. We were breathing and sweating hard with the work we were doing forging ahead. We hunched in a doorway for shelter in a silent La Laguna. That was a welcome rest and chocolate inspired us forward. Only 2 kms or so more. But the mist descended and the snow had been drifting, banking deep on the sides. We kept our eyes fixed on the borders of the path and checked our footsteps behind. Visibility was poor and if it had started snowing heavily we would have beat a hasty retreat following our own tracks. We had a rough idea of the distance we were covering. I had forgotten how tough it is to walk in deep snow. 10 paces then rest...20 paces this time...keep moving. We passed into Galicia. The wall heralding the final section to Cebreiro appeared. Then we were out on the road. All was normal. To our right a family were making a snowman. There were a lot of tourists around the village. Some stared at us. We had something to eat and set out for Triacastela. The sweat dried cooling us and we walked briskly to fend it off. Some drivers sounded their horns or waved in encouragement. As the miles passed energy levels sapped and I could feel the cold in my bones. When darkness loomed and the freezing mist came down I must confess I thanked God, Santiago and everyone else when Antonio and Paloma stopped to offer help. They had been on a day out from A Coruna and had decided by chance to take that particular road. We've swapped details. I'd like to see them again as we only spoke for a few minutes.

When we got into our room my teeth were chattering. Exhausted. We knew there was no food available anywhere and the woman in the hostal confirmed this. She gave us a loaf and some fruit. We unpacked the reserve we'd brought. I never thought a one cup kettle which cost £6 would prove so useful. After a cup of Bachelors Cup A Soup sipped under a blanket we had scalding hot showers which revived our spirits. Then a bocadillo we had brought with us followed by two Pot Noodles mopped up with some bread. Fruit finished the feast. We were in the middle of self congratulation at having decided to carry the additional 1kg of kettle and food between us when I fell asleep. We both awoke 9 hours later and after persuading stiff limbs into action and some bread and jam we set off having decided to make up the missing kilometres of yesterday. The contrast was total. White had turned to green. It had thawed. Snow remained only on the distant mountains. And so we eventually followed the arrows out of Triacastela. Two signs faced us - Sarria via Samos to the left - the other route to the right. A lady approached. "Feliz ano" we greeted her. "We have a choice routes," we said, "Which is best?" She drew herself up into full matriarchal mode and let rip like an opinionated London cabbie - "There is only one choice. If you turn left the route will be flooded with all of this rain, and if you want to go that way to see the Monastery, it won't be open anyway, they never let anyone in, and after all we have lots of monasteries so who cares about that one, turn right go down then up, it is lovely, you will enjoy it." Then she produced the most effective weapon in her considerable armoury, " AND the way I am recommending is shorter!" As she drew breath we bade her a hasty farewell and turned right. She nodded her approval and we felt like good boys.

With that decision we began a lovely day's walking to Sarria. The promised rain never happened. We walked without rain jackets, feeling free after yesterday. Nothing was open until 4kms before Sarria. We stopped and had a brief word with an Italian pilgrim who had started in Cebreiro.

The countryside was like parts of Scotland. We passed some long haired cows. I remember wishing them a Happy New Year. They just stared back. Frankly I don't care about that or anything else - this hotel room has a bath!
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Friday, 1 January 2010


Arrived in Triacastela safe after the most difficult day. The journey to Cebreiro took more than four hours from just before dawn. We woke to light snow but it deepened as we ascended. Visibility down to 50 mts. Could never have been done alone. No other pilgrims on the route all day. Snow drifts knee deep for the last 1.5 - 2 kms. The photos will show more. It was safe but very hard work - 20 paces and resting in places. The road to Triacastela was clear but after 12kms or so freezing mist and snow descended and light disintegrated. More dangerous and unpleasant than on the mountain. Two angels in the form of Antonio and Paloma stopped and gave us a lift. Will tell more later - need to recover!
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