Sunday, 28 February 2010

Practical Pilgrim – The Camino Portugués

Another route which has quite different characteristics is the route from Porto in Portugal to Santiago. The CSJ Guide needed updating so having identified a two week gap our diaries the Big Man and I set to the task. This time he was the Guidewriter and I was the scout.

Travel to Porto was easy with a direct flight from London and I was impressed with the ease of travel into the city on the clean and efficient train service. I had learned in advance that a lot of Portuguese people speak English. Being in an Hispanic country for the first few times I lapsed into Spanish. They replied in English. I soon came to learn that the relationship between the two countries is much like Scotland and England and stuck to English from then on. I have heard some theories as to why English is so universally spoken in Portugal. Some say it was a deliberate thrust of the school curriculum others that there were so many films on TV in English is rubbed off on everyone!

I had also read that there was a lot of road walking on this route. That turned out to be somewhat of an understatement. As well as walking along the side of very busy roads there is a considerable amount of walking on hard, cobbled paths. In fact in the first couple of days there is almost 40 kms of continuous concrete walking. That is why guidebooks give an alternative of taking public transport (including the Porto Metro) and missing out the first stage.
You can judge for yourselves but I was left feeling a little ambivalent about this route. Parts are ugly and the walking can be tedious. But on balance I think there is just enough good walking and scenery to redeem this route. And of course the fellowship with other pilgrims is always there.
If you have two weeks to spend then walking the Camino Portugués from Porto to Santiago for 10 or 11 days plus a day or so in Santiago may be ideal.

If you think I’m being unfair about this route, let me know!

Friday, 26 February 2010

Becoming a pilgrim...and there's more

At the Practical Pilgrims’ Day I wanted to demonstrate that there are many routes to Santiago. I believe there is one for everyone! Some are long such as the Camino Francés or the Via de la Plata and some are short like the Caminos Inglés or Portugués.I explained that when I first walked the Camino Inglés I fell in love with this little route.

Traditionally the medieval pilgrims from Northern Europe arrived by ship in A Coruña on the North West Coast of Spain and made the short three day, 75 km, journey on foot to Santiago. In modern times it was recognised that walking less than 100 kms would not qualify pilgrims for a Compostela and therefore a route from Ferrol was devised. This route is approximately 110kms and takes 5 days to walk. The assumption is that not all medieval pilgrims sailed into A Coruña and some must have disembarked at other ports such as Ferrol. Both arms of the route meet at Hospital de Bruma which as the name implies was a hospital for pilgrims in the middle ages.

This route reveals a different aspect of Spain and has quite a different personality from other inland routes such as the Camino Francés. A Coruna is a seaside town with a large harbour. The promenade stretches for some 9 kms. The beach is huge and many Spaniards go there on holiday. You will only rarely hear an English voice in the many roadside cafes that serve fresh seafood caught that morning. Ferrol on the other hand is a still a working port with a large base for the Spanish navy. It was where Franco was born.

Ferrol and A Coruña are very easily accessible by bus from Santiago and there are direct flights from London to A Coruña. There is a very good bus service between A Coruña and Ferrol. The Camino Inglés is an ideal route for someone wanting to spend 5 days walking and 2days in Santiago or for a two week trip the Camino Inglés plus the route to Finisterre/Muxía.

Have a look at the wonderful sea views and pastoral scenes of the Camino Inglés.

Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Becoming a Pilgrim

Becoming a Pilgrim was the title of the talk I was asked to give at the Practical Pilgrims' Day organised by the Confraternity of St James. I could easily have re-named it, "my rapid ascent into Camino addiction".

During the presentation I wanted not only to share my own story but also to demonstrate that there are many routes to Santiago, long and short, each with their own personality and characteristics. I prepared a few wee films which I'll post here in sequence.

I started by explaining that for many years I've been in love with Spain. I visited every summer and for seven of these years I celebrated New Year in the mild climate of Seville. In all that time I never heard about the Camino to Santiago. That discovery happened one evening with friends Graham and Jenny in Edinburgh. Over dinner Graham told me that for about five years Jenny had been walking sections of a pilgrimage route from the border of France to its destination at Santiago de Compostela. Jenny enthused about it and they took me through to the spare room where on the wall there was a large map of the North of Spain. A red line marked the route of the Camino Frances and Jenny had cut out a little paper figure of a pilgrim which she moved along the line every time she completed a section. "There is a route from Seville too, you know," she said with a glint in her eye.

I thought that pilgrimage was an activity for older women in parishes who went bus trips to Wallsingham or Lourdes. But the seed was sewn and I spent many hours surfing the internet to learn more about the Camino to Santiago.

It had been my ambition to give up my long held career and although for some time the date of that event had been extended and extended time was marching on. I decided set a date for leaving and to mark the change by walking from Seville to Santiago.

I joined the Confraternity of St James and even went so far as to volunteer because of the all the spare time I thought I would have. I joined the team which stuffs envelopes with the Confraternity Bulletin which gets sent out to members. I was also introduced to a member who had walked from Seville. His wise counsel and support were invaluable.

I assembeld my kit, drawing up many packing lists. I laid it out on the bed. Often. I packed and unpacked my rucksack. I largely ignored the advice I had been given about carrying too much weight and the consequences of that will fill another blog post.

The best thing I did was during a visit to Seville when I walked the first couple of stages of the route. This reassured me that everything I had read about the yellow arrows was true. They were there and I could depend on them.

On 2 January 2006 I set out from Sevilla.

Recently a friend considering this route wrote to me for advice. Click above to hear what I wrote to her.

Sunday, 21 February 2010

Practical Pilgrims

The large yellow arrow indicated how to get into the event I was at yesterday. It was a Practical Pilgrim Day organised by the Confraternity of St James. I was amazed that there were so many people there interested in becoming pilgrims. As the title implies the programme is geared to help people plan their pilgrimage often when they have no idea where to start.

There was a short introduction about the spirituality of pilgrimage and then a question and answer session mainly about the Camino Francés. The topics were all the same questions I had in the beginning. How do I get to the start? How do I get a pilgrim passport? What’s a Compostela? Then participants broke into smaller groups to examine practical issues in detail. Upstairs in the Library surrounded by walls of guidebooks and books of pilgrim lore the cyclists’ group were pouring over maps when I went to visit them.
Downstairs in the main hall three large groups had formed. People were asking questions: “What are the albergues like? What about bedbugs? Should I wear boots or shoes? These are all familiar questions. What impressed me was the atmosphere. Very experienced pilgrims listened attentively to the novices. People were of all ages with perhaps slightly more women than men in attendance. I spoke to a doctor who has been exploring one or two of the shorter routes like the way to Finisterre but now he has retired he is committed to set out on the Camino Francés from St Jean de Pied Port in September. In the queue at the tea bar at lunch time I met a younger teacher who is going to use his summer holidays also to walk the French route. “Will I be able to do it in 5 weeks?” he asked.

In one group an experienced Pilgrim unpacked her rucksack and with every item explained how experience had brought her to take this number of socks or that number of T shirts. I heard her give invaluable advice about taking quick drying clothing and only taking black underwear. I’ll save her blushes by only posting the photograph of her holding up her socks in demonstration.

Marion, the secretary of the Confraternity had asked me if I would give a talk after lunch entitled Becoming A Pilgrim. Marion then introduced me as a “newish” member of the Confraternity. I joined in 2006. I wonder when my probationary period expires! I’m joking of course. The CSJ is a great organisation which provided me with a huge amount of assistance with my first pilgrimage on the Via de la Plata. I explained to the meeting that my first pilgrim experience had such an impact on me that I have been walking, exploring the routes and writing guide books every since. I explained that an alternative title to my presentation could easily be: “My rapid ascent into Camino addiction”.

I showed a number of wee films which I’ll post here over the next few days. They show the different personalities of the various routes I’ve walked. But people wanted to know about the Camino Francés. I did a commentary to the slide-show then showed them the Camino Hogmanay film since they may never see the route submerged in snow.

The Camino always inspires and I was very much encouraged by the enthusiasm of future fellow pilgrims. Over the next few days I’ll post the film of the Camino Francés with the text of the commentary and then in the days to come the other slide shows on the Via de la Plata, Camino Inglés, the Camino Portugués and the Madrid route.

I find a large glass of Rioja whilst watching them with the sound turned up is a great antidote to the months of winter. Oh no… Lent started last Wednesday!

Sunday, 7 February 2010

Santiago Diary - En el piel de los caminantes

My Ryan air flight back to London left 5 minutes early ending a short break in Santiago. Always reluctant to leave I was already thinking about the next visit in April. The sun broke through the rain clouds as we took off and as I leafed through the Ryanair magazine I found an article on the patois of my home town of Glasgow in Scotland. One of the phrases which was translated is "stoatin' aff the grun" or in English, "raining so heavily the rain is bouncing off the ground". And that's been the story of Santiago this week.

The old town seemed abandoned. The students are in class and there are few pilgrims around. I visited the Pilgrims' Office and the staff were bored. There had been a rush of pilgrims in January at the beginning of the Holy Year when 1200 were registered. This compares to 150 in the same month last year and 600 in the last Holy Year in 2004. A sign of the deluge of pilgrims to come later in the year.

In anticipation under the umbrellas Santiago is quietly gearing up for the 10 million visitors some are predicting this year. The hostals and hotels are busy taking bookings and the Pilgrims’ Office has already sent out half of the 100,000 pilgrim passports they had printed in December. These will be distributed through Amigos groups all over the world. Don Jenaro, the Canon in charge confidently predicts that over 250,000 pilgrims will walk to Santiago this year. "We will welcome all of them with 'brazos abiertos' (open arms)" he says with a grin while the staff discuss how best to manage the inevitable queues. More people have been taken on and they are currently undergoing training with a combination of lectures on the nature and history of the pilgrimage and visits to the Cathedral archives to see the Codex Calixtinus, said to be the first guide book to the route. They also plan to go on a short pilgrimage themselves perhaps from Ferrol on the Camino Inglés or Tui on the Camino Portugués.

In the Cathedral the organists are getting into their routine for the year. They will play at the four masses a day which have been laid on to cope with the enormous numbers of pilgrims. New cantors are being trained and in the summer months the Botafumeiro will fly everyday at the noon mass. At other times groups still have to pay for the Botafumeiro and in this Holy Year the price has gone up from 240 euros to 300 euros. No one can explain why and shoulders are shrugged at my question.
Many restaurants are still closed and decorators seem busy everywhere. The other day I went to book a room for a pilgrim arriving in April and the Hostal was closed for cleaning and renovation. Because this is a quiet period the Executive Committee of the Asociación de Empresarios de Hostelería de Santiago (above) decided that having served pilgrims for many years they should walk a route themselves. When I spoke to their President, José Antonio Liñares Bar, he explained that in the beginning their purpose was purely commercial. " We decided to walk from Sarria to get as much publicity as possible about the Holy Year and to show our neighbours in towns along the route what they could also do to promote it."

I've known José Antonio since I stayed in one of his hotels, the Costa Vela, some years ago after my first pilgrimage. He is a stylish, almost regal, Spanish caballero. Always polite and always reserved. But talking to him the other day was like speaking to a different person. Gone was the reserve. He was obviously proud to be a fully fledged pilgrim. We chatted about all the things pilgrims do. José Antonio said that he has been an hotelier in Santiago for 15 years and although during that time he had served thousands of pilgrims he had never before truly understood what their journey had entailed. "What surprised you?" I asked, "was it sleeping in albergues or eating Menus del Peregrino?" He laughed, "no, I did a year of national service in the army when Spain still had that for everyone so communal sleeping was not new. The greatest surprise was the energy it took to walk all day, every day, for five days. I thought it would be easy but we would see a hill in the distance and I would think that I would need to take a taxi to reach it. But poco a poco, step by step I reached that hill only to find another hill in the distance we had to reach." José Antonio found the Camino Frances beautiful. "Did you experience any problems?" I asked. "Oh yes," he positively enthused, "every evening my feet and knees were aching more than I ever thought possible and every day we had to fight our way through the cold and the rain." His pride at his achievement was palpable. "So, peregrino," I said, "have your opinions of the pilgrimage and pilgrims changed?" "Totally" he replied. "Now I understand many of the reasons why pilgrims do this. It is undoubtedly spiritual. Even for people who have no faith it is contact with nature and with other pilgrims." Then wistfully he said, " what began for me as a publicity strategy became a matter of the heart and soul. I would do it again in an instant."
The hoteliers got their publicity with a headline in the newspaper: En el piel de los caminantes - literally: in the skin of the walkers the Spanish equivalent of the English phrase walking in the shoes of the pilgrims. They may have set out that way but they arrived as pilgrims in their own right.

José Antonio has made the discovery which most of us make. This year many more will have that experience as they make their pilgrimages long or short. Santiago is waiting for all of us.