Sunday, April 13, 2008

Santiago at Last

Finally my journey has come to an end. Santiago welcomed me and Juli at 12-00 this morning, as he has millions before us. This afternoon Pau (9 years) asked me "was it worth it?" A good question if ever there was one. Everyone has their own reason for making this journey: I ticked the box "religous and other" as i handed over my credential, and got given the compostella in recognition for my efforts of the past weeks. There is something powerful about following in the same footsteps as so many others who have walked the same path, particularly when you think of those who walked in the days before gore-tex boots and when the return journey was on foot rather than with Iberia. I think that this journey has helped me to value more all of those things which are normally taken for granted in our lives, those material and human comforts which you never really appreciate till they are gone. But most of all, I think it has helped me realize that however much you rely on your own strength, there are always times when you falter and you need to rely on the strength, advice and support of others to pull you through. A new journey starts tomorrow. Pau told me during the first days of my walking, "I hope you have the strength to get to where you want to go". Let´s hope so.

Thursday, April 10, 2008

Galicia At Last!

From Ponferrada another sunny day´s walk through the wine lands of El Bierzo on to Villafranca del Bierzo, a charming village where we stayed at a particularly special albergue run by a man who must now be in his sixties or seventies called Jato. The albergue had been built by pilgrims, and Jato seemed to live a life completely dedicated to the service of the pilgrims passing through, cooking up the most delicious Caldo Bierziano in the evening, and setting us on our way in the morning with fried eggs on bread. Still better, Jato loaded up all our rucksacks into a landrover making our climb up O Cebreiro the next day significantly easier going.

The threatened rain held off until the last 30 minutes of our climb up the steep slopes of O Cebreiro. At the top, the cold mist and rain swirling around us could not dampen our spirits. We had arrived in Galicia!

The walk down from Cebreiro to Triacastela was heavy going. The rain was relentless, once again, my foot started to protest, and to make matters worse, instead of following the Camino arrows, I ended up following some other markings down an alternative mountain route. Some 6km short of Triacastela, I came to a point where the path crossed a stream, where mysteriously, both the way to the right and to the left were marked with a cross, indicating "not this way". Almost miraculously, just as I mused upon which direction to take, a farmer appeared. "Which way is the camino?" I asked. He pointed down the river. "Your going to get wet!" he said.. I barely understood a word he said to me in a mixture of Galician and Spanish, but I understood he was directing me along an alternative and drier route. So I struck off across the fields, more or less in the direction he seemed to be indicating as the rain continued to pour, keeping an eye on the flooded foot path. After fighting my way through two barbed wire fences, I was able to rejoin the path, and finally find my way down to Triacastela.

In Triacastela, Juli had recommended that I went to the pilgrim mass. The mass was a truly unique experience. There must have been ten pilgrims, and the priest asked us which languages we spoke, and handed out readings so that each of us had to read parts of the service in our own language. Furthermore, he asked me to do a sort of simultaneous translation into english of his homily. In particular I remember he said that we should be christians through love and not fear, which I thought was very good. Finally, all of us held hands and recited the lords prayer together, each in his own language, and we took communion. I had never taken communion before, and I am not sure that you are supposed to without having met certain prerequisites, but it seemed to be an appropriate time and setting to do so!

That evening at dinner, Regine,a French woman asked me what I had learned from the camino, and strangely I did not have an easy answer. There are so many different things it is not easy to describe. What came to mind was firstly how small we are compared to nature. When we can drive and fly around the world, we loose this perspective. Secondly, it is the importance of looking after ourselves as an individual. Sometimes you need to go at your own pace, go at your own speed, and not let other people dictate their speed to you. Third, is a change of perspective of material things. On the Camino, the problem is usually that you have too much, not that you have too little. And lastly, on the Camino, it doesnt matter who you are, or what your position is in society. Everyone is truly equal, trying to reach a common goal. Later when we return to the real world, of course we will all go back to exactly the same lives as before with the same problems, but perhaps our perspective will be different.

From Triacastela, we had a good days walk. My feet didnt hurt, the rain stopped, and as the day wore on, I saw that it would be reasonable to keep walking taking advantage of the break in the rain, and finally I completed 32km as far as Ferreiros. Just two km before Ferreiros, we past the 100km milestone to Santiago. On Friday, Juli will arrive, and the apostle´s tomb is only 4 day´s walk away!

Message from Matt

Hola a tots! After a couple of days without Internet access, Matt hasn't been able to put his blog up to date. He asked me to write this note and tell you all that he is safe and sound in Ferreiros, less than 100 km from Santiago!!! nearly there.....
1 abraçada ben gran per tothom.


Saturday, April 5, 2008

Cruz de Hierro

Today has been the high point of my camino so far in various ways. Firstly because after half an hour we reached Cruz de Hierro, at 1500 m the highest altitude on the camino. I carried a stone up with me to put at the base of the cross to bring good health for all of us. But most importantly, because today the blister on the left foot hardly gave me any pain at all, and i could enjoy the walking. And what a walk it was, up over the mountains with snow capped peaks on either side, glorious sunshine, clean air, fabulous smells of spring scents from the flowers, cherry trees in blossom. One hour after the Cruz de Hierro, the mountains of Galicia came into sight, and once again my spirits soared. Following that it was quite a steep climb down to Ponferrada.

Once again thanks for the comments you are leaving. Funily enough, the hymn Mum quotes is one I hum to myself sometimes as I walk along, but so far it has been da di dum up until the last line "to be a Pilgrim". Now I will be able to put the right words all the way through!

Friday, April 4, 2008

Small things

Leon is a beautiful city, but certainly not pilgrim friendly. Progress in the form of ring roads and fly overs have pushed the pilgrims aside leaving them to risk life and limb on road side. If before the pilgrims were at risk from bandits and thieves, the main risks today must be 40tonne trucks wisking past at high speed. The days stage to Villadangos del Paramo was probably the least inspiring so far with the exception of Leon´s beautiful city centre. On the way I ran into Roland, from Berlin, who had started his walking in Leon. At Villadangos there was a pleasant Albergue with a poster on the wall "the pilgrim learns to appreciate small things".

The hospitalero by the name of Angel arrived, and on seeing I was limping straight away prepared a bowl of warm water with salt and vinegar for my aching feet. My blister was giving me problems and without a thought, he offered to drive me 15km to the local surgery where the nurse drained the blister and dressed it, giving some relief, and said it would be ok to keep walking, even though a bit painful.

The next day at last we left the main road, breaking out accross country towards Astorga. Roland accompanied me almost all the way, and it was such a relief to finally be in the countryside again listening to birds singing. But the best thing of the day was to be able to walk on grass! Soft springy, foot friendly grass. Indeed the pilgrim does learn to appreciate small things. Finally Astorga came into sight, with snow capped hills behind and my spirits soared. For the last few days I had doubted whether I would make it this far.

From Astorga there is a continual climb up to Foncebadón at 1500 m. altitude, some 26km. Santiago once again had rewarded us with a beautiful day's walking, not a cloud in the sky, a cooling breeze, with the snow capped hills in front, and the plains of Leon stretching out behind us. Foncebadon is a tiny village which had practically been abandoned, until revitalized by the flourishing pilgrim business. Tomorrow just half an hours climb away is Cruz de Hierro, the highest point of the journey, where "heaven meets the earth".

Tuesday, April 1, 2008

On to Leon (almost)

Today the sun was shining all day, a perfect temperature for walking. I was last out of the albergue at 9-00 and made slow but steady progress out of Burgo Ranero, through flat countryside, on through Mansilla de las Mulas and then into the outskirts of Leon , perhaps not the most inspiring scenery, but after the previous days, I appreciated an easy walk. When I arrived, a Galician man showed me how to properly cure blisters leaving a small thread in the blister with heaps of antiseptic so that it drains properly, leaving the old skin on top to protect. Sounds dramatic, but it seemed fairly painless so tomorrow we ll see what the results are. Certainly today I was feeling quite a lot better, so I am not sure if yesterday was flu or just allergy to walking. It was also a relief to see at long last the horizon break and mountains rising up, still in the distance, but this means that in a few days the plains will be finished, and Galicia starts!

Monday, March 31, 2008

Penitence and Purification

Following a good nights sleep, we were wakened at 0700 by the Hospitalero since we were all supposed to be out of the hostal by 0800, and this hospitalero by all accounts was a stickler for the rules. However my room mate in the next bed seemed to have no intention of moving, hunched up in his sleeping bag, with jumpers and wooly hat. As we had breakfast, someone mentioned that he was staying behind sick.

Walking out of Carrion de los Condes, I braced myself for the longest stretch without refuges on the camino. Both Juli and the guidebook warned of the difficulty of a stretch with nothing but endless horizons and false hopes. And very shortly, rain, cold horizontal rain blowing into our faces and sapping our spirits as once again we tried to avoid the sharper stones digging into our feet.

4 hours later, a small village appeared out of the rain welcoming us to warm soup and pasta.

The afternoon was much easier going, luckily the hail storm which fell started just as we were leaving the restaurant, so we were able to shelter in the porch waiting for it to finish. Others were not so lucky.

And so on to Terradillas, the afternoon becoming quite pleasant, allowing us to dry out as we walked , finally arriving at a pleasant hostal where I shared table with some Spanish group of pilgrims.

The next morning for the first time, I was hardly able to pull myself out of bed. I felt exhausted, and furthermore my stomach was telling me that something was not OK. The first village was only 6km away, close enough to abandon the walking at an early stage if it became too much. As I walked I remembered the vision of the sick pilgrim in the next bed to mine, and all the symptoms were stacking up to be flu. However, I made progress, and following 6km stopped for warming tea, so I decided to carry on, since there were regular stops along the route leaving me options to stop at various points along the way. Today would be a day of purification of mind and spirit, with minimum food, and hot tea. My resolve crumbled as I arrived at Sahaguan, where the sight of a railway line brought me visions of an overnight train from Leon to Barcelona with Juli and a convalescence with all my home comforts. Only the sight of a graffiti of encouragement to an unknown pilgrim "animo" broke the vision, and another cup of tea and a phone call from Juli restored my flagging spirits. Frenadol seemed to revive me still further as I made good progress throughout the rest of the day. The weather was perfect, a warm sun, minimal wind, but cool air and finally some respite from my blisters, as the paths were much kinder on my feet. All the same, the last few km into Burgo Ranero were hard work. I think over the last couple of days I have earned an atonement for a sin or two, but the forgiveness I most crave is if any day in 2003 I failed to give Juli enough support during her camino, as her support and messages along the way is invaluable. This thought is becoming a heavy stone in my baggage.

Anyway, an early night tonight, and see how I feel tomorrow.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Endless Castilla

Finally Spring seems to be winning the battle against Winter, and Santiago has rewarded me with two calm days of glorious sunshine, just perfect for walking. The landscape has opened out, and it hasn t taken me long to appreciate that in spite of the snow, I am walking at the best time of year. Any later in the year, and the heat would be intolerable. I climbed up the steep slope out of Castroderliz (or something like that) to be greeted to cheers and was handed chocolate by a couple of Germans who had already made it to the top. Beyond that point the land was more of less flat, but the ground stony, and as the day wore on, I became convinced that every night the Devil must send out his little helpers to carefully place all the stones sharp edge upwards to press into the blistered feet of the brave or foolish who have made it so far.

Finally I arrived at Boadilla del Camino where Juli had recommended to me the most fantastic albergue ran by Eduardo who welcomed us and where we ate the most fantastic pilgrim dinner, together with the above mentioned Germans, 2 Koreans and an Australian.

The next day we set out into the mist, through Fromista, and on to Carrion de los Condes. Carrion de los Condes is significant in my mind, because it was where Juli was obliged to stop in 2003 for a day, having suffered since Hontanas with tendonitis. I remember at the time talking to Juli on the phone, but her suffering at the time was distant, now, as I walked was I able to understand how much she must have suffered firstly to be walking through this unforgiving landscape in pain, and secondly the frustration of having to stop while her companions continued on with out her. Carrion de los Condes in my mind was a dark place , so it was nioce to find that it is a very pleasant place. I am staying in the same monestary as Juli.

Once again, I have read all the comments so many people have left me. Thankyou, it is great to know I am not walking alone! You are all very much in my thoughts. And of course here I have a lot of time to think!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

To Hontanas

Today, as expected was hard work, 29km walking against a strong driving wind which threatened to blow us all back to Roncesvalles. Juli warned me that the stages between Burgos and Leon are what you might call psychological. There is no scenery to fix your bearings, you climb up to the crest of a hill, only to find a new crest beyond that, and when you finally reach the top, it is a sort of endless plain stretching out into the distance with no villages, trees or nothing, just wind electrical generators disappearing off into the distance. The few villages there are a tucked away in valleys so you cant see them. All this coupled with the constant wind whistling round your head adds to the harshness of the landscape. Still I imagine it could be worse. In summer the sun must be merciless. At 4-30 I finally arrived but no sign of any familiar faces. Talking to an English pilgrim, I discovered that Kevin, the Irishman had stayed back in Hornillos. Hontanas is a small village, with no m0bile phone coverage (shock horror) but I was invited to play cards with the women who run the albergue. As one of the women pointed out, lucky no money was involved in the card game, because these 3 would have cleaned me out pretty quickly. So by 8-00 I had showered, and had dinner and have headed up to the village bar for a beer, and have found what is apparently the only internet in town. Working from a modem (no ADSL here). I have about a week of this sort of terrain until finally we reach Leon. As Uggi the Korean says, this is will be a great opportunity to concentrate on my walking.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

Dont look down....

Yesterday was difficult. The weather held up, but it was a long climb up over the pedraja up some 1100 m altitude. Although the scenery for the climb was breathtaking, up the top I got bogged down again in mud and that was tiring. And worse, upon my arrival i discovered , horror of horrors the beginning of a blister on the bottom of my foot , in just the worst place. All of a sudden I became aware of the distance that separates me from my destination, and also from Juli, my family and friends. We had done the stage Burgos to Ontanas in October 2006 and I arrived exhausted. Now i started to imagine the same walk, with a heavy pack, rain, wind, and a blister, multiplied by 20 days and...bufff.

Things started to improve with a visit from Tio Jose who came to the rescue with compeed miracle blister plasters. He seems to be OK but the loss of Tia Elo has torn a big hole in his life. We had an enjoyable evening sharing a pilgrim menu.

The next day arrived with blue skies and the blister plaster seemed to do the trick. So i set off to cover the 26km to Burgos relieved to see that the rain threatened had not appeared. Serious miscalculation. One hour later I was hastily putting back on my waterproof trousers on the top of a mountain, and bracing myself as the rain, quickly turned once more to snow.

Luckily , the snow only lasted a couple of hours, and following another struggle through mud I arrived at a bar for a second breakfast around 12-30. During this stop, Juli phoned and explained to me all of the comments that people have been leaving me on the blog, and it certainly is such a help to receive all this support. Like my sort of cousin Clare says, I just have to keep putting one foot in front of the other, and each day I will be closer to Santiago.

I am writing this from Nacho s flat in Burgos. Nacho is one of Juli´s closest friends from those endless summers in Quintanavides. He and Isabel have kindly offered me a bed for the night and it is marvellous to have my own space, and relax with Nacho and his family.

Burgos is one third of the way to Santiago, and so represents a significant staging post for me. Tomorrow, I am going to do Burgos to Ontanas, putting one foot in front of the other.

Monday, March 24, 2008


As threatened, Saturday arrived in Navarrete with snow, driving horizonatally into our faces, but luckily without settling on the path. Furthermore the stage had no villages to stop at so we had 19km with no shelter apart from a tunnel under a road, where we recovered our energy with cakes and dried fruit. Luckily the snow stopped, and following Najera we made quick progress on to Azofra to a luxurious albergue looked after by a man who also ran a wine celler(a bodegero , what more could you expect in the Rioja). In the evening we prepared a salad together with 3 Basques and a couple from Valencia following which the "bodegero" appeared with 3 bottles of his wine for us to try...a gesture not greatly appreciated by a German pilgrim who protested at 10-00 that he was being kept awake by our revelry...the "bodegero"solved by closing the door conecting the kitchen room from the sleeping quarters "if he protests again, I ll find him a room up on the 3rd floor" as he opened another bottle of tinto.

It must have been good wine, because we all slept like logs(apart from the unfortunate German) and with no lasting effects the next morning.

Today the snow had given way to rain, but the strong wind remained, but we made good progress on through Santo Domingo de la Calzada, where I caught up with Kevin an Irishman, Sean from Australia and a Korean with a name I have difficulty pronouncing and less idea how to write. The weather at this stage had cleared up with sunshine, turning into a pleasant afternoon, and given that we were all feeling fine this, coupled with the threat of more rain tomorrow , encouraged us to continue on to Belorado.

Saturday, March 22, 2008

Torres del Rio - Navarrete

Yesterday, I walked some 28km from Estella to Torres del Rio, thus avoiding staying at Los Arcos which I remembered Rachel had described as being "creepy". Indeed creepy it only encounter with a local was a man who said " tomorrow you´ll be treading on snow...." so I carried on to Torres del Rio, to a hostel called Casa Mari which Mel had recommended and was truly worth the extra distance, although I suffered the last 4 km with a swollen foot and a bit of pain.

Today dawned with a light rain, and i set out in trepidation, afraid of my foot giving me more problems. The day started with 10km of up and down muddy and slippery slopes. There is a Spanish phrase "tread with muddy feet" meaning " be careful" and today i fully understood where this phrase comes from! I had originally planned to go just as far as Logroño (about 20km) but i made good progress and found that my foot wasnt hurting at all, so carried on to Navarrete some 12 km further. Just before Navarrete, on the right hand side of the path, there was a long stretch of fence separating the camino from the motorway which someone had spent a lot of time decorating with crosses made from twigs woven through the fence. As i walked along i became amazed at the extent of this work of art stretching for several hundred metres, and with no sign of coming to an end..until finally I got it..the decoration was of course the work of pilgrims, at which point I duly placed my own cross with the others! This simple revelation was the high point of my day, the revelation of the power of participation instead of remaing a spectator. The crosses finally finished a couple of km later where the fence stopped.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Departures and Arrivals

The last days prior to may departure were all rather intense. I was not able to announce that I was leaving work until the very last day at 12-00. Everyone convened into my office, and i think it was a bit of a bombshell to everybody. Then I walked around the factory floor shaking hands and saying good bye. For the most part, I think i managed to keep myself together, but when i said goodbye to Jose Luis, the only thing he could say was "me parece muy mal, pero my mal " (over and over again and I couldnt keep the tears back. Jose Luis must be around 52 and is the best operator anyone could ask for in a factory, the sort of guy we always took the auditors to because he always explained his procedures perfectly. A sad day, at 5 Juli came to pick me up and off we went.

But the week wasnt all sad, since on the 13th Antonio arrived (Joey and Laura´s new son) and both Laura and Antonio were in great form. It was so relaxing to sit holding Antonio watching him sleep in my arms. Nora was delighted with her new brother. Antonio is lucky to have such a caring family around him.

A relaxing weekend, and then off to Roncesvalles, via Pamplona. I was nervous but happy to arrive in Pamplona, where I met Seamus at lunch, an Irish man who was having certain difficulty in understand the menu which was being rattled off to him at high speed by the waitress, who seeoing that he didnt understand just seemed to repeat the same only faster and faster. Under such circumstances, it is very easy to drum up conversation so I had a very pleasant lunch talking about the camino de Santiago and Seamus plan which was to go down and see the semana santa in Malaga.

Finally arrived at Roncesvalles at 7, just in time to get a bed at the hostel and then listen to the pilgrim´s mass, which was truly fantastic. The mass is a mixture of spoken and chanted in a wonderful church, a truly marvellous atmosphere where you really appreciate that you are about to set off on a journey with such a rich history and which for so many people has a truly spiritual significance.

During the night i could here rain falling and sure enough when we left the refuge at 1830 it was raining, so off we trudged on the first wet steps of the 750 km to Santiago. 1 km later most of us decided it was time for breakfast.

Most of the pilgrims i spoke to were planning to stop at Zubiri, but since i was feeling fine by the time I arrived, I decided to push on the next 6 km to the next village where my guide book indicated the recommended stage to finish. One and a half hours later, the village came into sight, and a warm shower and pilgrims menu beckoned me so I dragged my exhausted feet the last few steps into the centre of the village where i found 4 other pilgrims sitting on some wooden benches. Where´s the hostel I asked? It is difficult to describe how quickly elation plunges to despair when they replied that everything was shut, no hostel, no food, no nothing.

Pilgrim s lesson number one. Don t count on anything going as planned.

Pilgrims lesson number two. Don t consider what you have lost, consider what you have found. I had just found Xabi, Eva, Luis and Miguel, who have been my companions for the last 3 days.

Following a thorough appraisal of the options available to us, we decided to press on the next 10 km to the next village, Arre which is 5 km short of Pamplona. There our effort was reward since we found the most luxurious refuge which we virtually had to ourselves, warm, with washing machine, tumble dryer and even sofa... not exactly a typical pilgrim hostel.

Sunday, March 9, 2008

Cami de les Aigües

Yesterday was the first step in my Camino. I bought the bus ticket to Pamplona so a week today, I will be starting out from Roncesvalles on the first stage of my journey. I am a little nervous for many reasons, a month on the road away from home comforts , away from Juli, but above all, a month of personal reflection, conversations with strangers, coupled with intense physical activity..these three things have never been my strong point.

Right now I am concentrating on my preparation, practical, mental and physical. Hundreds of years ago, the pilgrims set off with the clothes they stood in and a stick. Today practical means going to Decathlon and getting hold of a whole load of warm, light clothing and state of the art walking boots to try and make sure my pampered feet can walk all those kilometers without getting blisters all over..i fear an impossible task.

Mentally I am trying to get my mind ready for the journey, and above all to take advantage of my last week with Juli before I set off.

Physically, preparation means walking walking and walking. Today we went walking in the Cami de les Aigües which is up on Collserola and did a couple of hours with a ruck sac with a couple of litres of detergent in it. I am a bit paranoic about blisters , pulled muscles or tendons , I know i will have to take care of myself to make sure I can keep well to keep walking. Juli says the most important thing is to start, not to finish, which is very generous of her.

Anyway, one week to go..