Saturday, 28 May 2011

A letter from a place in La Mancha

Dear Friends
When I read Cervantes many years ago I never thought I´d see the land he described in Don Quixote. For the last few days I´ve been vividly reminded of the story as I have walked along streets with the name through little villages in this southern region of La Mancha. When I met the man himself I could hardly believe I was here. It is day 11. We have walked 276 kms of this 1300 km route and we have stopped in a town called La Roda to rest, do a washing and plan the next steps. I´ve found a Locotorio with a dodgy internet connection and a dysfunctional keyboard so I thought I would let you know how we are doing. Thanks to everyone who has emailed me.
We arrived in a bustling Valencia on Monday 16 May. It was hot and the place was full of tourists. We had considered staying a day or two to explore the city but the combination of English voices and the magnetic allure of the Camino made us decide to set out the next day.
Having carefully dissected the weighty guidebook supplied by the Amigos Association we went to the Cathedral for our first sello. The giggling nuns couldn't believe we were undertaking such a long journey and were incredulous at our invitation that they join us. As we soon found out whilst the pilgrimage to Santiago is known throughout Spain there are so few pilgrims on the Camino Levante we have been treated to curious uninhibited stares for the last 11 days.
On leaving Valencia we were soon out in open countryside as over the next days this Way revealed its initial characteristics. This is a long, epic, blockbuster of a route where the vistas sweep to the horizon. It can only be done poco a poco as each stage has its own challenges and rewards. Some days have been hard. They have all been exciting. Quickly the days have started running into each other. What day of the week it is is largely irrelevant on camino and I had to ask today what date and day of the week it is!
The first days we passed rice fields which stretched for miles then acres of green, lush orchards where our passing shoulders brushed trees laden with nectarines, oranges and plums of many varieties. It has been hot walking with many stretches without shade counterbalanced frequently with the bubbling sound of water rushing and gurgling along seemingly endless irrigation channels. Fields of ripening wheat sitting at the bottom of mountains bedecked with lines of windmills give the impression that this is truly a land of plenty. As we go along farmers ploughing rich ochre soil and workers bent at backbreaking picking wave or stop to chat. Our destination seems incredible to them. When they hear we are both from Scotland they laugh as if we really must be joking.
Whilst inevitably in the bigger conurbations people are less spontaneous with us the engagement of local people in our pilgrimage has been the most moving and arresting aspect of our journey so far. Each day we have met people whose open hearted generosity has made us wonder what will come next. Let me describe some of it to you.
We´ve been welcomed into churches and homes along the way. In Almusaffes the priest gave me the biggest hug when he heard we were pilgrims. Farther on a big, gruff farmer in blue overalls chomping a fat cigar grunted “hola” in return. A moment later he called us back to give us themost delicious oranges. In another village church we discovered the women of the pueblo leading a Eucharistic service. They beamed to find pilgrims with them. “Hug the Saint for us” they shouted after us as we left. In Xativa the hostal owner came to meet us to show us the way. “This is a good thing you are doing.” He said. In Vallada one afternoon temperatures were soaring. We took a chance and pressed the doorbell of a casa rural which had a sign saying works were being carried out. The lassie who answered said that she didn´t have a room but could let us have a self-catering apartment. This was the same price as the hostal the previous night. Homemade dinner,breakfast and packed lunch made this the cheapest stop so far. In the albergue in Almansa we met Willy from Austria and a sullen,silent Italian man. We never saw the Italian again. Alas a couple of days later Willy, veteran of the Camino Frances and the Via de la Plata decided this route was not for him and departed. Passing field after field of red poppies as we entered the next place a man came out of his house and asked if we needed anything. “Cold water, please”. He invited us in to meet his family who were finishing lunch. We took the water gratefully but had to turn down the offer of fresh creamcakes. We slept in the convent that night welcomed by the delightful nuns. I counted the entries in their visitors book. Only 90 pilgrims had stayed in the last three years including a greeting from my friend Andy.
We then braced ourselves for the unavoidable 38.5 km stage to Higueruela. For this and some other stages we had to carry the water and food we needed for the day. Our budget is 1 litre each for every 2 hours walking. Go figure the weight. We set out early and our shadows were long in the light of dawn.
After an hour or so we encountered a pilgrim walking towards us. Was this some hardy soul walking home from Compostela? We asked ourselves. No, this was a Valenciano who was giving up. “This route is too hard and I have blisters,” he said miserably. We continued on and it was a beautiful day of walking. At around 27 kms just as our feet were throbbing in the full heat of the day the waymark told us to turn Left and walk the final 10.7 kms on the road. Grimacing we set to it. A while later a car drew up being driven by a doctor on call. “I´m a member of the Amigos of the Camino in Albacete. Do you need anything?” he asked. No sooner had he driven off when the police drew up. “Be careful,the national cycle race will pass soon.” So it did. The cyclists went whizzing past with full entourage including press and TV. I wonder if they even noticed the two baking pilgrims walking slowly up the road.
Just as the heat and the length of the stage were making us despair we came accross a group of partying young people.They had set up a picnic table laden with beer, sprits and refrescos at the side of the road.They had obviously been celebrating the cyclists passing by. In any major city of the world we would have given such young people a wide berth but this is rural Spain.They called us over, were astonished at our pilgrimage and insisted on sharing with us. We refused the proferred whisky or vodka but greedily consumed the lemon fanta with ice. “Only 2 kms to go” they shouted as they waved us off.
As if to welcome us there was a full blown fiesta in the village with procession and marching bands. The band appeared in the restaurant later and played until late. That night we slept soundly in the comfortable albergue. We were delighted as we discovered it has a freezer and we were able to freeze all of our bottles of water for the following day. This meant as it slowly melted we had cold water to drink until the afternoon. This has long been one of my crazy business ideas for the Camino Frances. Somone will do it!

We´ve met three other walking pilgrims in this first phase. Two gave up and the Italian disappeared.
On the way into Albecete we met Eneco who was clocking up an average of 100 kms a day on his bicycle and yesterday just before I chatted with Jose the shepherd three other cyclists rode past at speed.
Our daily routine has become established. Walking separately for a period of prayer and reflection in the morning and afternoon. Scouting out the arrows together when necessary although to be honest this has been seldom on this perfectly waymarked route. Sharing the costs of accommodation for hostals and company for each other in the evenings for Mass and dinner.
Physical problems have been minimal.One negligible blister for me and a couple of days of walking in long sleeves and trousers for the Big Man due to his unenthusiastic use of sunscreen. All fully recovered.
We´ve kept our kit to a minimum which has been difficult for a route which will take the best part of 7weeks. For example that´s 7 weeks worth of prescription drugs we´ve both had to to carry.
My biggest bonus has been my Kindle and I am slowly working through the 12 books I bought for this pilgrimage journey. Yesterday I downloaded DonQuixote to browse again. After all I am in La Mancha.
I hope you are all well wherever you are. I´ll write to you again whenever I can.
Buen Camino
Psyou can see more photographs here

Sunday, 15 May 2011

Trust the arrows

Meet John, the big gruff Irishman I was walking with on the Camino Inglés last week. For years he has been going on about coming walking with me in Spain and now his ambition is fulfilled. His reaction to the Camino was fascinating. As an older chap he had done a lot of training. He discovered the “London Loop” a series of day walks around the capital. Each stage starts at an underground railway station and finishes at another. John had also planned his equipment thoroughly. He had got his feet used to walking in the shoes he was going to use and had walked with a fully packed rucksack. I’d also sent him a slide show of the route so he would know what to expect. Still he was surprised. I asked him to describe how he felt...”I never thought it would be so beautiful and straightforward. You told me about the yellow arrows marking the way but I couldn’t quite believe it.” His sense of wonder about the journey continued as we walked along. He saw arrows of all kinds from the granite waymarks put in place by local authorities to the yellow arrows painted by local Amigos Associations. I told John that I had left Seville Cathedral following an arrow on the pavement and that and many hundreds of other arrows showed me all the way to Santiago 1000kms later. “Amazing” John concluded. And so they are.
On Tuesday more yellow arrows will guide me out of Valencia. I’ve never been there before and I am very much looking forward to exploring the city. Yesterday I picked up credenciales from the Pilgrims’ Office and tomorrow the local Amigos in Valencia are meeting me so that I can buy the guidebook for the route. Then I’m off in the company of another friend who walked with me on the Camino Hogmanay last year. The Big Man is also one of the South London gang and we three had a brief reunion before John returned to the UK. The Big Man is a very experienced camino walker but the 1300kms route from Valencia to Santiago is the longest either of us have undertaken. We should be on pilgrimage for about 7 weeks more or less. This route, the Camino Levante, is only walked by a few pilgrims each year and those who have done it say it is beautiful and at times challenging. My friend Andy who writes a super spiritual blog has walked most of the route and recommends it. He says that the waymarking is generally very good so yet again for most of the time all I’ll have to do is trust the arrows.
Trust has featured a lot in my life recently as I’ve moved home to another country. At times I’ve found it pretty scary. I’ve been worrying about whether I’ll fit in here, make friends, be understood, understand what they locals are saying? I’ve been waking up in the night asking myself random questions...what do I ask for in the butchers if I want to buy a sirloin steak or a kilo of mince? What’s the word for carrots again? How do shirt sizes work in Spain? Will I ever see or hear the BBC again?
Well the other evening I cooked dinner for friends having been at the shops and bought all the stuff. I’ve got my computer up and running and can listen to the BBC anytime I want. I bought a shirt in the Corte Inglés yesterday and I was out with other friends on Friday evening and I understood what was being said and with their help managed to communicate myself. I’ve also been making phone calls in Spanish. I’ve become quite fluent in the language of booking rooms in hostals but phoning to arrange to meet a friend or indeed to talk to someone who is a relative stranger made me really anxious. But it had to be done. Taking a very deep breath I phoned Don Jaime the parish priest of the Basilica of Santra Maria in Pontevedra. “It’s John the organist” I said, “May I come and see you on Friday, as I’d like to learn more about the music in the church and perhaps play the organ a little?” He couldn’t have been more helpful and told me to come before 11am. I turned up at the appointed hour to find the church filling with people and himself vested to start Mass. “The organ is open” he laughed, “ it is the Feast of Our Lady of Fatima, so you must play for us.” I played, they sang and already I began to feel a little at home. After the service he led me over to his office for “a chat”. After some preamble he got to the point. “What are you doing on Sunday?” he asked. I was non committal. “You see,” he went on, “we have 40 children from our own and a number of other parishes being confirmed. The Bishop will be there and of course the church will be full. Would you play?” So yesterday was spent emptying boxes of music, planning a programme and rehearsing. Just exactly as I have done in Scotland and London for most of my adult life. The Spanish may have different names for them but the notes of music still make the same sound.

As I came out of the train station in Pontevedra I wondered how easy it would be to walk to the Basilica. I was about to ask directions when my eye was drawn to a familiar sight right across the road. A waymark with a yellow arrow. This was the Camino Portuguese and I knew the route went through the centre of the town so I just followed the arrows. Guess what? They took me to within 200 metres of the church. A good omen or what!
So, friends, this morning I’ll follow the arrows again to play at my first major event and on Tuesday I’ll start following them again on my pilgrim way from Valencia. I’ll try to let you know from time to time how I am getting on.

Monday, 9 May 2011

Red Skies

It is 6am and I have been awake for 45 mins. As I stretch out I am amazed as ever by the body's powers of recuperation. Last night I went to bed feeling the stiffness in my muscles and the throbbing in my feet which is familiar to Camino walkers. This morning all gone to be replaced with the delicious feeling of excitement that today we will walk into Santiago.

I'm excited because I will be staying there. Yesterday I got a message that my goods and chattles had arrived safely. There are many boxes to be emptied. That thought however doesn't detract one bit from how much I am looking forward to walking into Santiago today.

It has been a great week on the Camino Ingles. I have been walking with one of my friends from South West London where I used to live. (I really like the sound of that: "where I used to live!) John is one of the group of my  firm friends who meet regularly for a drink and a chat, which is more often than not a debate. Our gang is the evidence that middle age men still like to play like wee boys. Only now we can drink more. John is the most senior of us and the most competitive. He's big. He's Irish. And he is a builder. He is extremely bright and very well read. When we are all together John never introduces subjects for discussion like football or politics. Rather like a quiz master he asks questions, usually very loudly. "Does anyone know the chemical composition of nitroglycerine? Followed quickly by "what is the average number of words in a Shakespeare sonnet?

John is trying to retire but has been finding it difficult. Part of his strategy is that he has taken up walking and stage by stage he has been walking around London in a huge circle. He also decided he would walk to Compostela. At this announcement the boys, including me, replied "bet you don't". However I was duly delegated to lead an expedition.  This week John has experienced the glories of this little pilgrimage route. We were worried about the weather as there has been much rain and some storms in the region. However the weather was sunny and warm as we set off from Ferrol. We walked at a steady pace and at the end of the day strolled along the beach at Cabanas before crossing the long bridge into Pontedeume. Before dinner we walked down to the waterfront to see the sun set in a red sky. "Good weather tomorrow Johnnie" the big  Irishman pronounced and so it was to be. On the first day John had continued to ask me a stream of random quiz questions, "what do you call the colour of yellow on the house? "What is the latin name for that flower?" "Is it possible to have a tree that produces apples and pears?" On the second day as we climbed out of Pontedeume on our way to Betanzos I could tell he was silenced not just by the walk up hill but the beauty of the views looking back. On the way he began to return the many greetings of the local people who wished us "Buen Viaje" or "Buen Camino". The sky was red again as dusk descended on Betanzos. We visited the beautiful church of San Francisco and sat in tired silence. The big gruff Irishman lit a candle.
The following day we met a couple of Portuguese pilgrims. We were walking in shorts and light t shirts. They were fully laden with jackets, fleeces, trousers, gaiters, full boots  and backpacks which appeared to contain all their worldly goods. We also met Chris from New Zealand just as we were setting out. He was clutching a copy of my guide on which he had made notes. A thin, wiry chap Chris was the opposite of the Portuguese. He wore regular casual trousers and shirt,  carried a little rucksack and walked in regular casual brown shoes. I asked him where he started. "I left Ferrol yesterday" he said. "But that means you walked 50 kms all the way to Betanzos in one day!" I replied. And so he had. We caught up with him in Meson do Vento where he shared his meticulous notes on the guide. He set off next morning under a red sky promising to try and take two days to walk to Santiago. But I suspect he may have pushed ahead and I can imagine the looks on the faces in the Pilgrims' Office when he appears having walked a 5 day route in 3 days. However I'll be his witness.

The red sky of yesterday morning fulfilled the promise of the shepherd's warning and we were treated to a day of Galician heavy rain interspersed with periods of strong and very warm sun. As we walked all day through the rain my companion fell to silence most of the time. On our breaks we spoke of the route and as we ate our sandwiches in a bus shelter and last night at dinner the conversation was of life and love, faith and the lack of it, hope and ambition. There wasn't one quiz question.
As we ate in our hostal last night the sky glowed red. "Sun tomorrow" said Antonio as he served our salads. Today I'm excited for Big John as we walk our last hours to Santiago where he will spot the spires of the Cathedral and bask in his achievement as he stands in the square. Hugging statues and kneeling before alleged relics are definitely not his thing but I bet he'll follow the tradition anyhow.
John says this pilgrimage is among the best things he has ever done. He is wondering whether at his advanced age he can tackle a longer route. Of course he can. I can also hear him now when he is back in the pub with the rest of the tribe, "does anyone know the height of the spires of Santiago Cathedral?"

Sunday, 1 May 2011

The St James Way

I thought I’d tell you about this new route in England just before I leave for Spain. As if predicting how difficult I might find some of the goodbyes I’ve had to say recently the Confraternity of St James asked if I would write a guidebook to a new route they have devised from Reading to Southampton. This turned out to be the greatest pleasure which helped me train for the two caminos ahead as well as letting me see some of the most beautiful and historic part of England. I predict that this route will become a “must walk” for pilgrims in the United Kingdom. I am certain it will also attract visitors from overseas who may be travelling via London from the United States, Australia and other countries. For them the St James Way is an excellent way to do some initial training for a longer camino in France and Spain or simply to enjoy walking through English history, past ancient sites, historic towns, along canals and river banks, past thatched cottages and 12th century churches.
The route was first devised by Marion Marples the Secretary of the CSJ more than 20 years ago. It was walked by only a few people including guidewriter Alison Raju who produced the first set of walking notes. The CSJ now wishes to develop and promote this new route. The guide is almost finished and will be published on line by the CSJ.
This route is about 70 miles long and runs from Reading to Southampton. For pilgrims wishing to walk the route as part of their journey to Compostela they can fly to France or Southern Spain from Southampton, or they can continue on foot to Portsmouth on another route, the Pilgrims’ Trail, to cross by ferry.

Artist impression of Roman amphitheatre at Silchester

The route is based on the Roman road from Silchester via Basingstoke to Winchester, and also includes the St James churches at Bramley, which has wall-paintings including St James, and Wield, as well as the former Benedictine priory at Monk Sherborne, whose church became the parish church at Pamber (not to be confused with the Norman church at Monk Sherborne). From Alresford, the Way follows the Itchen Way to Winchester, England's capital under the Saxons. The cathedral was a Benedictine foundation, of which several buildings, including the Pilgrims’ Hall, survive. Also Benedictine were St Mary's Abbey, also called the Nunnaminster, of which some foundations can be seen, and Hyde Abbey, of which little remains. Nothing remains of the four friaries, though there are some fragments of the hospitals of St John and St Mary Magdalen.
The route continues following the Itchen Way, past the Hospital of St Cross, which still gives out a dole of bread and beer to travellers, and past Southampton airport to Southampton, where a few fragments survive of the Augustinian priory of St Denis (in the suburb now spelt St Denys).
However, the medieval walls of Southampton remain, with the gateways where pilgrims embarked for pilgrim destinations in France, Spain and the Mediterranean. Near the God’s Hospital Tower the Maison Dieu of St Julian’s accommodated pilgrims.
Ferries however no longer run from Southampton to France, so the Pilgrims’ Trail connects Winchester with Portsmouth via Bishop's Waltham, where there are remains of the palace of the bishop of Winchester, and Southwick, where the parish church, dedicated to St James-without-the-Priory-Gate, contains remnants of the former Augustinian priory founded by Henry I. There is an annual pilgrimage around 25 July (St James’s day) from Portchester church to Southwick, recalling the journey made by the Augustinian canons in c 1145 as they moved to a larger site.
Portsmouth, though largely a naval port, had a 13 century Hospital of St Nicholas, and wine trade with South West France. Recently, Time Team has excavated land around the Royal Garrison Church (founded 1212) to discover the plan of a medieval pilgrim hospital and Maison Dieu, where pilgrims would have stayed. The modern cathedral is based on a chapel of Thomas Becket, built by the Southwick monks.
The route starts at the ruins of Reading Abbey with the adjacent more modern church of St James and proceeds south through places such as Sulhamstead Abbots with its picturesque 12th century church. Then onward to Silchester with the remains of a Roman town. You actually walk in the shadow of the tall remains of the walls which were the town’s fortification before heading on to visit another St James church at Bramley. New Alresford (pronounced “Allsford” ) Martyrs Worthy, Kings Worthy, Preston Candover, Itchen Stokeand Itchen Abbas are beautiful villages which soon lead along the River Itchen to the historic town of Winchester.
There I was welcomed as a pilgrim in the great cathedral. The visitors charges were waived. “Yes we have a sello” confirmed the smiling receptionist. The cathedral is breathtaking in its size and beauty and the sun shone as I left to make my way just a few miles further along the river to the Church and Hospital of St Cross. I had a seen a television programme about it and wanted to see it for myself. Soon it loomed large sitting with perfectly manicured lawns. I made my way through the arched entrance and bumped into one of the brothers.
Legend has it that the Hospital's foundation originated in a walk that Henry de Blois, a grandson of William the Conqueror, took in the Itchen Meadows. He was supposedly stopped by a young peasant girl who begged de Blois to help her people, who were starving because of the civil war. The parallel with the Virgin Mary was not lost on de Blois, who was so moved by the girl's plight that when, a little further along the river, he discovered the ruins of a religious house, he resolved to use the site to establish a new community to help the poor. How much of this is fact is unclear, but we do know that Henry de Blois was young, wealthy and powerful: a monk, knight and politician in one. Appointed Bishop of Winchester in 1129 at the age of 28, he founded the Hospital of St Cross between 1132 and 1136, creating what has become England's oldest charitable institution.
The Hospital was founded to support thirteen poor men, so frail that they were unable to work, and to feed one hundred men at the gates each day. The thirteen men became the Brothers of St Cross. Then, as now, they were not monks. St Cross is not a monastery but a secular foundation. Medieval St Cross was endowed with land, mills and farms, providing food and drink for a large number of people - don't forget the water was unfit for drinking so copious amounts of ale and beer were needed!
“Are you coming to Matins?” he said with a smile. “May I?” I asked. Next thing I was ushered in to meet the others. They beamed when I said I was a pilgrim. Their smiles broadened when I explained about the St James Way and the guidebook. The service lasted 15 minutes and was a perfect start to a day’s walking. Before I left I was offered the traditional “dole” – a slice of bread and a cup of ale. I have to say it was a little early for beer, even for me.
From there the route meanders along river and canal reaching Southampton easily within the day.
The St James’ Way is easy walking. It can be done in stages and there is Bed and Breakfast accommodation available either on the route or nearby. With a little planning the route is very accessible. I recommend it.

And so dear friends I’m off. It has been a week or so of farewells. Tough at times but the tears shed herald a different future. My next post will be from my new home in Santiago after I have walked the Camino Ingles with a friend from London who has long wanted to walk to Compostela. Then with another friend I am off to walk from Valencia. I’ll keep you posted. 2 days to go!