Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Greetings from Santiago!

Just off the path, June 12th

Tuesday -- a day early -- we walked into Santiago completing our journey of 38 days and an undetermined number of kilometers. It turns out that none of the guides agree with one another regarding the distances (and the differences are pretty substantial), there are numerous detours and, not to forget, the many excursions searching for the elusive arrows. Walking through the outskirts and then into the heart of the old city to finally reach the cathedral is a strange experience knowing that you are now done and the purpose of each day is redefined.

On Sunday, the Camino del Norte merged with the Camino Frances in the town of Arzua. The Camino Frances is considered the main route from the Pyrenees and has the most traffic. Having walked that route before (first time in 2000), we were prepared for a big change in pilgrim traffic and atmoshpere. But not prepared for the crowds! The window from our room in the pension looked out over the path and it was a steady stream of walkers for hours. Most of the time when we walked the final 2 days there were always other pilgrims in sight... as well as garbage cans at regular intervals to collect pilgrim detritus. It was nothing like this 7 years ago and a huge contrast to the the Camino del Norte when we seldom saw another person. At this point it seems like the Germans are close to outnumbering the Spanish. It wasn´t until our last day that we met some other Americans.

The last week of walking there was a small group of about 10 moving at the same intervals. We didn´t see each other during the day very much but then would all congregate at the albergue for laundry, wine and meals. Often we slept in the same room that loked like a bomb had exploded when backpacks were unloaded and the next morning were immaculate again. One of the last nights it occurred to me that the pilgrim lullaby should be "Strangers In The Night."

Carving of Santiago the Moor Slayer (the un PC version)

We spent one night at a huge cathedral and monastery in the town of Sobrado. Evidently it had been restored in the early part of the 1900´s but the cathedral had also been deconsecrated and was completely empty. We toured it during a massive thunderstorm and downpour, you could see the plants once again beginnng to overtake the domes. The old kitchen (from the 13th century) was open with a huge central firepit and chimney, home to many birds. Very strange and eerie. That night there was chanting with the monks -- Laurie said there were close to 20 and many were young, some Asian -- but I elected to enjoy some time alone amidst the 48 beds.

Our last day of walking we passed through a small farming village with wooden plows in the barns, oxen out back and then up the hill to skirt the airport runway, around the broadcasting stations for the two big news channels, by some tired villages, over a freeway bridge and into town. Experiences and places that are only a few minutes or hours away by car are suddenly so distant. It´s odd to be done but I am glad to have arrived and very happy at the prospect of coming home. Very happy!

A few miscellaneous shots:

above: preparing for the giant marshmallow harvest

below: the view from the laundry line at the hostel in Tapie de Casareigos

Wednesday, June 6, 2007

Finally, some pictures!

Above, a street scene from Oviedo -- a very lovely little city.

A typical path in Galicia... moving south from the coast.

These giant puppet heads were on benches next to the police station in MaldoƱedo. (No, we were not there for drunkenand disorderly conduct... we were picking up the key to the albergue.)

I would send more but the connection here is practically dial up. Will keep trying as we move along.

Best wishes from Vilalba... the Fresno of Spain.

Sunday, June 3, 2007

heading inland on the home stretch

Today we had our last view of the ocean and have begun the trail south toward Santiago. Only 9 more days of walking left! You´ll have to guess if that is exultation over the accomplishment or excitement that the end is in sight :-)

The walking since Luarca has been wonderful... long gently sloping stretches along coastal bluffs with distant views of the ocean and refreshing, cool breezes. The days have been fewer kilometers and allowed for longer lunches lying in fields. The rest of the way, with one exception, the daily distance will be 12-15 miles which is quite manageable. The wear and tear is beginning to be felt with new symptoms daily but, in general, I wake up feeling good.

We spent last night in Tapia de Casariego, a town that had the feeling of Manhattan Beach in the 60´s but with 3 of the most spectacular beaches you can imagine. There were a couple of surf shops and some awesome dudes but the waves were far from gnarley. We slept at the pilgrim´s hostel, one of the nicer ones. It was situated on a cliff just above the ocean, featuring a laundry line with a million dollar view of a cove with numerous rock islands. The place was nearly full but quite a few people will be going home today but planning to return to finish the trip another time.

Again, I can´t load photos here but will try later from another place. Thanks for your notes & encouragement!

This Camino is much lonelier than the French route. We are lucky to meet any other walkers each day and this whole time have only met 3 other native English speakers. Laurie´s phenomenal Spanish and my mediocre French help us get by.

Thursday, May 31, 2007

a good pilgrim never complains part 2

Leaving Oviedo, we headed north to Aviles to reconnect with the Camino del Norte. Most of the pilgrims who go to Oviedo continue south on the "Camino Primitivo" through the Cordillera Cantabrica. (As you might guess, I was not tempted to cross anything "primitivo.") The walk to Aviles was one of those segments that you don´t want your parents to know about or your kids to try... we spent at least 16km on a winding secondary highway with non existent shoulder. The terrain was actually quite pretty but hard to fully appreciate when anticipating oncoming trucks. The adrenaline, however, added to speed to my gait and we arrived in good time. Aviles has a bad reputation as an unattractive industrial city and while the residential outskirts were not inspiring, the historical center of the city and parks were really wonderful with blocks and blocks of covered walks and beautiful buildings, plazas and fountains. The guide I bought said the pilgrim´s hostel in Aviles was "excellent and highly recommended" and we thought that it would be a good place to reconnect with others who were continuing on the route. Disappointment on both counts. The hostel stretched the definition of excellent well beyond the credible and the occupants were two older guy loners, a pair who left at 5:00 and a Spanish guy who was sick.

The next day, on the way out of Aviles, we ran into a very nice Spanish guy who had biked or walked most of the Caminos and was just talking a stroll. He shared his maps with us and helped to get us off the pavement. Unlike the route we have taken before, the Camino del Norte is (so far) at least 60% pavement which is very hard on the feet so any opportunity to walk on gravel, grass, leaves, even some packed mud is most welcome. Stopping for lunch in Muros de Nalon we encountered a British woman who lives there with her Spanish husband. She was an interesting character (classic motorbike enthusiast) who professed to dislike walking and characterized the Camino del Norte as poorly tended and needing a machete. We opined to the contrary and marched off in the wrong direction. (The signage on this camino is spotty: 5 arrows in one place with no choices and then lots of intersecting paths with no indication to speak of.) We found our way eventually and stayed in Cudillero, a small port reputed to have started as a base for pirates since it is very steep and well hidden from the sea. It was a great spot.

Yesterday we left Cudillero a bit before 8:00 feeling very chipper and looking forward to another beautiful coastal walk. This coast is much rougher than before with lots of steep cliffs and deep canyons so the path winds back around the canyons or steeply down and up again. Early on we had a wonderful stretch through a pine forest with soft paths. Alas, it was one of those areas lacking in arrows and we enjoyed an extra 3km or so trying to find our way. Later, our guide (in an update) indicated that an uphill segment was newly cleared and easy to traverse. On this path, the machete comment was more fully appreciated as we made our way through overgrown berry bushes, nettles and gorse so thick that it was hard to see a path (especially while disentangling my shirt from thorns or my boot from the mud beneath the weeds.) We emerged back on the road looking very much worse, kind of laughing. Another long stretch on a very lonely secondary highway and then the arrows sent us down canyon to save a kilometer before the next little hamlet. Fending off goats with my box of cookies, we bypassed a vast puddle by scrambling up over an old, moss covered rock wall. Once again adrenaline saves the day. As we proceed down (it is now 5:00 pm and we have only taken 2 breaks) the sound of running water grows louder and I figure that there is surely a bridge or crossing of some sort but no, only a very narrow mossy tree trunk. I didn´t have that much adrenaline left nor did Laurie so we looked up and down for possible crossings. Not finding any, we proceeded to collect rocks, throw them strategically in the stream and create out own crossing. (Pretty sure we earned a Girls Scout badge.) By the time we reached Santa Marina we were drenched and spent, not laughing (me at least) but pretty impressed with ourselves and our teamwork. The pension was modest and chilly, dinner was tasteless (I believe Laurie used the word disgusting for the canned roast beef) BUT the water was hot, the food was warm, the beds soft and the wine had alcohol and I slept like the dead. With visions of taking the train dancing in my head -- which I did today!

Saturday, May 26, 2007

getting the pilgrim groove on

To start (since I seem unable to move them on this particular machine), a few photos:

This is a view of the Camino outside of Ribadisella. Unbelievable!

Some coastal views from the walk to Ribadisella from Llanes.

Sorry this one is sideways -- it is the Church of the Sorrows of the Mud. I am not kidding, either. (And by the way, yesterday we passed many flyers for the fiestas celebrating the "Virgen de la Cabeza." That´s the Virgin of the Head. Honest, I am not making this up!)

Getting into it...

There seems to be some combination of conditioning, weight loss, pack adjustment, and feet toughening that equates to the right energy to keep walking and walking. Finally I have reached that point where the pack is weightless and my legs don´t feel like leaden pegs -- what a difference! And the scenery of the past week has been astonishing. I think the Asturian coast is one of the best kept secrets of the world. We have covered miles and miles of rocky coves, endless beaches without anyone else on them, meadows fillled with flowers and only an occasional village here and there. The rolling countryside is like a combination of Ireland and Switzerland. Suffice to say, I would encourage anyone to include this part of Spain on their itinerary.

Yesterday we took a detour to visit an 8th century church and monastery in the corner of a remote valley. The church still had remnants of the original paintings that were used to decorate the interior. Sitting as it was in the middle of a meadow with a stream running behind, it made quite an impression. Most of the churches are closed and we were lucky to arrive just in time to get admission. Aftr visiting the church, we asked for stamps for our pilgrim credentials and were directed to the monastery door, to ring a bell. A voice asked what we wanted and we were instructed to wait. And wait. Finally a monk appeared in his robes to provide the requested stamp. We were dutifully polite and thankful but the Brother remained silent and expressionless. At the end pf the procdure there was the glimmer of smile and walking back to get our packs I speculated to Laurie that perhaps he had taken a vow of silence. Moments later we heard him ask the lady in the ticket office if his fax had arrived yet.

People see many fewer pilgrims on this route and tend to stare and point (and, I might add, laugh) without reservation. At then end of a long day on asphalt when I am tired and sweaty, it can get to me a bit. Walking into Oviedo today, soggier from rainy drizzle than sweat, and feeling every pound on the pavement, a woman across the road with her rolling market basket stopped and began clapping and smiling for us. It was very touching and amazingly energizing.

Our friends from Germany have all returned home and the few familiar faces are thinning out. We did run into the Belgians again and actually got smiles when I offered food.

A lot of the t shirts here that the locals wear have English phrases on them. It seems sort of odd to pick a shirt that says something you can´t understand. And why do I assume that they are not understood? Consider my favorites:

sponge 52

i am not the bus driver

safari wild prestige 5

surfing flavour

On a final unreflective note, the TV is everywhere in the background (or worse, foreground) in every cafe and restaurant. Usually it is music videos or some inane talk show that makes Jerry Springer look like Charlie Rose. Last night it was the Spanish version of one of those celebrity gossip shows we were ignoring during our dinner when out of the corner of my eye I saw Mick Jagger on teh creen. I pointed this out to Laurie who shrieked with laughter when she read the caption that he was reported to be using bee strings instead of viagra. Just what inquiring pilgrim minds need to know....

Monday, May 21, 2007

a few words about humility

On Friday, I took another taxi while the rest of the Anti Belgian Pilgrim League made their way by foot from Comillas -- a very charming seaside town with many huge medieval and gothic monuments as well as a tower by Gaudi -- to another resort and fishing town called San Vicented de la Barquera. The plan was that we would meet at the "Albergue de Peregrinos" (pilgrim´s hostel). I made my way ahead to drop off my pack and found the place closed until one in the afternoon. The entrance, through a construction site and around some large boulders strewn with garbage outside a garage did not make a promising impression but not wanting to be one of "those" pilgrims who complain and fail to show gratitude, I elected to hope for the best. When my companeras finally arrived, we were informed by the host (a small older guy who appeared in each of about 300 photos of him with happy groups of pilgrims lining the wall of the reception hall) that we had to leave our shoes outside, could not take food inside in our packs, not put our packs on the beds, and that dinner was served at 8:00. Since Karoline was leaving for home on Saturday morning we had planned a special dinner and explained that we would be going to a restaurant. This invited a lecture about the art of pilgrimage, eating and singing together, and accepting the gifts that are offered along the way. We thanked the man for the kind offer and again explained that we had made this plan with our friends. The next morning as we sat down to the breakfast of coffee and bread with jam, the host kept pressing more and more food upon us (which we declined), objected when I went to wash the dishes, and then was heard complaining that he would have to eat out since we ate all the bread. As a final parting gift as we left to walk Karoline to the bus station, we were treated to a lecture on American lack of humility, parallels with the Roman Empire and proper pilgrimage. Since we have now encountered 2 days of nasty wet weather, it is clear that Sr Padre Peregrino was right and we -- (along with the rest of Spain, I am sorry to say!) -- are being punished with a week of grey, rain, and wind. Today we are all taking rest day in Llanes, our first big town in Asturias. I imagine that yesterday´s walk would have been quite spectacular in clearer weather. We are just north of the Picos de Europa, Spain´s highest mountain range with snow covered peaks that a currently covered by clouds. The coast is much wilder and rockier that what we have seen before. Much of yesterday´s hike was on bluffs above the sea cliffs that were lined with natural rock chimneys that spewed forceful plumes of water powered by the force of the surf. The sound was unearthly. We arrived in Llanes totally wet and very happy to find a nice little pension (with a heater!!). Tomorrow (Tuesday), Uta and Monica leave for Germany so it will just be Laurie and me with the crappy guide book I bought in England. Ooops... I mean we will depart with gratitude for the guidance of pilgrims who have gone before us and and written so... uh... creatively about the directions to Santiago. (And thanks also to the editors who were clearly able to relax during their duties.)

And now, some more random photos.
In the old town of Llanes

"Memory Cubes" an art installation along the harbor wall at Llanes.

Friday, May 18, 2007

A good pilgrim is always thankful and never complains

When we were given our "credenciales" at the beginning of the Camino in Irun, we were instructed to carefully read the rules for good pilgrims. On previous treks we had seen these posted (only in the worst, dirtiest and coldest places, I might add) and I understand that there are definitely those people who use the Camino as a cheap holiday. However, there are times when the kind and generous spirit escapes this pilgrim. A brief digression: when we register at the pilgrim hostels we are asked for our nationality, starting place and destination, and reason for peregrination. Almost everyone gives "spirituality" as the reason for walking and I wonder what would happen if I said "to lose weight" or "find out how much I can drink." OK... back to the down and dirty of the catty pilgrim. There are some people you meet on foot that are hard to figure out. For example, the night we stayed in the monastery outside of Burkina Faso, a Belgian man (60 ish and a serious snorer) and his two female cousins arrived by taxi. The story was that he had completed the Camino del Norte a week before, flown home for his daughter´s wedding, and returned to begin again with his cousins. This little trio is the highest maintenance group... always making noise about having to take upper bunks in the hostels, hogging blankets, NEVER saying hola, using all the clothesline, etc. And, suspiciously, found in hostels shortly after the taxis are seen.
Laurie and I have fallen in with some great German women -- Laurie, Uta, Monica and Karoline in photo above -- and we have become de facto leaders of the Anti Belgian Pilgrims League. Today is a short day (11 K for the walkers and taxi for me and El Cidito) and we expect to fall out of rhythm with the offending trio. Enough griping.

Santander is a wonderful city. I got to meet a friend of my friend (Deborah) who has moved home after many years away. Angeles (see photo above with me & Laurie) met me near the Cathedral and I was ablke to give her the gift that Deb had sent... very nice to meet a local. Wish we had had more time together. The way out of the city the next day was a stark contrast to the way in.... endless industrial parks, tiny pueblos without services (read: bar) and all cement and asphalt. The host of the hostel in Santander was out for a drive and offered to take our backpacks to the next hostel -- a private one with a great reputation -- for us. It really helped although it committed us to a 28k walk.
Photo above is a random shot of the cloister in Santillana del Mar -- beautiful spot we visited yesterday. (I had hoped to find a shot of the walk into Santander but I am kind of guessing based on the numbers on the memory card.)
Since then, I have been walking part way and taking a taxi the other to give my tired feet a break. Today we are in San Vincente de la Barquera and will enjoy the beach and be tourists for the afternoon.