Tuesday 14 October 2008

While Rome burns

The tenth of October. I’ve just been sitting on the beach, mesmerised by the powerful white curls of rising waves that approach each time closer than the last. Around me people were stripped down to swimming costumes, stretched on the sand or tossing in the breakers. The wind was brisk but warm and windsurfers were showing off. We’ve been promised rain for days, but there was still no sign of it.

This scene is the reason we came to Barcelona: for late sun and warmth and a chance to test how small a pocket of the year my white fingers can be squeezed into.

Until we got here, that is. In this international city par excellence, English-language newspapers are everywhere with tales of economic implosion. Easy internet access leads to easy browsing of BBC headlines. And now our tenants are about to move out, leaving us rent-less. Can we really bury our heads in the sand any longer – especially in the coarse, gritty sand of Barcelona beach? Ought we really to spend the winter wandering the tapas bars where some Flamenco musician is playing the guitar – while stocks and shares burn all around?

Maybe we could, maybe we should. But in the first shocked days here, before we remembered the beach, we had already decided it was time to head for home.

Now, sitting on this beach that is warmer than many English summers, eating my ice-cream, I’m beginning to think we might have made a mistake.

10th October 2008

Sunday 5 October 2008

PS: the statistics

  • 9 months / 274 days in total

  • 147 days of walking

  • 2289 miles / 3683 kilometres walked

  • 15.6 miles on average walked per (walking) day

  • 5 pairs of boots used between us

  • 0 blisters

  • 12 pairs of socks used each

  • 4 visits to doctors

  • 5 major bug attacks, assorted

  • 300-plus bed bug bites

  • 3 t-shirts, 3 pairs of pants, 2 pairs of trousers worn each

  • 17,660 photos taken

  • 11 notebooks filled

  • 10 items carried and never used

The end

There should be moments of great emotion; revelations about life, ourselves or both. Our way of behaving in the world should, Damascus-like, be transformed. Yet thoughts and emotions rarely occur at the scheduled moments, but at the right ones.

We had all the superficial milestones: the "last hundred kilometres" post; "only three more days to go"; the "last time I need to wash out this t-shirt". Deliberately we left ourselves a long last walk into Santiago, wanting to arrive tired and feeling like we had walked a long way to get there. We woke to a perfect shimmering sunrise and strange nerves, as if it could all still spoil.

It didn't. The sun slanted through eucalyptus forests right to the city's edge. The soft sandy track had kept back some steep ascents for a final fling, which we enjoyed in our familiar quiet. Only at the approach to Santiago did the scattered individuals become a stream of movement in a single direction. Most people stop at Monte de Gozo, a giant accommodation centre that permits them to walk the final five kilometres to the Cathedral next morning, refreshed. We didn't stop, and so our final five kilometres, like the first five months, we walked alone with ourselves. In the city streets school children and workers were heading home for the late Spanish lunch. They were indifferent to us: pilgrims in Santiago are like pigeons in London.

I had expected the Cathedral and its main square, the Praza do Obradoiro, to be a noisy circus ring of souvenir sellers, cafés and tour groups. But there were none, just a scattering of other stunned people with laden rucksacks or cycles and a beautiful, reverent silence. Inside the Cathedral, too, smaller than I'd imagined, a contemplative peace wrapped around us in contrast to the chattering museums that other Spanish cathedrals have become. When I later learned this was a short-lived drawing of breath during lunch, I was even more grateful that such was our arrival.

Even so it was impossible to know what to think or feel. Numb. Complete. Astounded. Relieved. Lost. Grateful. Sad. Not sad: we had finished where and how we had always hoped to finish.

But gratitude was overwhelming. In the dark crypt with its silvered coffin I muttered a spontaneous "thanks!" David was similarly moved by the centuries-old gesture of filing past the golden and jewelled statue of our old Saint Jack to give him the customary big hug and a kiss. The feelings continued through the next day's noontime Pilgrim Mass at which a nun sang with the voice of a fragile angel and American priests made the Botafumeiro swing with glee.

For a few hours I couldn't even look at the shop windows of jewellery and gifts, much less contemplate buying such unnecessary things ever again. But after an Australian-sized tapas bar-crawl with Paul and Kim, I achieved closure - or oblivion.

Then we came to Finisterre, the end of the once-known world, and in a much anticipated moment of symbolism out on the rocky headland each burned one item of the clothes that have done duty for nine months. It is here, in the tiny, ordinary fishing town with mild headlands and blue-green seas that we have found some of the silence needed to consider our journey.

I'm not sure I can claim we have changed at all. It's rare that an experience like this changes people deep down. A frequent comment from those who completed the walk a while ago is a melancholy "I did change ... for a while ...". Nor do I expect the people we have spent time with to remain friends for long. Camino friends are not for life. The experiences that bring you together are too intense and too different to sustain into normal life. Perhaps the most we can hope for is that inherent but previously worn out characteristics become strengthened.

So I hope we continue to loosen the ties that bind us to shops and acquisitions. I hope we can lighten our load in the world.

I hope we continue to have increased respect for the environment and its resources, especially water and fuel. My repulsion in the face of some of the squalor we have encountered, even here in western Europe, makes me sure that no one anywhere should have to live with squalor. Yet I have learned that I'm not the sort of person to carry out development work overseas: better to increase the support I can give to those better able to do it.

I hope we can continue to lead a slower life with more time, daily, for each other and for other people. Even without the regular terrors and exhaustions that bred my prayers for help and sighs of thanks, I hope I'll still take time to look beyond myself. Whether you call it prayer in a Christian, Jewish or Muslim mode or the power of Buddhist positive energy, the knowledge that people were wishing me success was sometimes the only thing keeping me going. So I hope I'll find space to stop and cast a thought or two in the direction of people, known or unknown, who need the extra strength. And the first person I'll direct those thoughts to is Alan, a teacher from Kosi Bay School in South Africa. He has decided to take time for reflection by walking from Cape Town back to the school in north eastern South Africa. With nothing like the infrastructure surrounding the Camino de Santiago that is a challenge indeed and there will be times he'll need the thoughts and strength of others to help him through. Believe me, I know.

4th October 2008

Monday 29 September 2008

The cycle of the seasons

Cut logs are stacked on the back of a lorry in a lay-by on Sunday night, waiting to be hauled to a sawmill in the morning. They are eucalyptus logs, clean-smelling and exotic. But in every other was they could be lengths of pine or beech trees from the commercial forests we passed through in northern and eastern France. I watch the morning sun slice through the dangling eucalyptus leaves and a breeze move the fronds of bark, and behind them see the intense blue eyes of the woman in a wood in Normandy who first told us of the eucalyptus forests that accompany the last few days into Santiago. I've been imagining these forests ever since.

The last week of our walk, partly no doubt because our minds are tending that way, has offered us sights and smells that link back to so many moments in the past nine months. As my breath forms clouds around me, wrapped up in layers as we set out with the late-rising sun, the certainty of a warm and sparkling afternoon carries us back to the magical days of the Pays de Bray in February. Then, we rejoiced at 16°C afternoons. Now, we luxuriate in 28°C.

The acorns we saw sprouting red in the dark earth of February and March have reappeared on the trees and now are falling again to lie freshly at our feet, where carpets of autumn crocuses have replaced the spring ones we were so excited to see.

A few days ago in the last real vineyards of the trip the grapes were black and heavy, still covered in grey bloom as the crates were stacked ready for the harvest. It is surprising to realise how the seasons have passed since we walked through the dead-seeming twigs of the Champagne vineyards or the green but flower-less ones of Chablis.

In a rare excursion into a Spanish bed and breakfast in Samos, we once again find ourselves sharing a chatty breakfast with our hosts and, in an echo of Les Avettes, our hosts are beekeepers and serve up their own honey along with tales of bees confused by the weather and mobile phones, dying in their hives.

Echoes of the Auvergne lie in wait in the tiny hamlets behind herd of cows for whom we have to linger patiently for them to return to their fields from milking. Like in the Basque country, the old farmers of Galicia want to stop and chat with us, for the pleasure of meeting strangers. And yet the drinks vending machines and even outdoor internet points outside farmyards make me laugh at my surprise over the vending machine adaptability of France.

There's almost a third spring here in Galicia. In the Auvergne we welcomed foxgloves, honeysuckle and clover that we had last seen around the Lac du Der. But here they are again in late September in the allegedly damp and cool north west of Spain. There are raspberries too, piled on tables outside houses for a few centimos a punnet.

The season is definitely cooler. Although the maize is fattening in fields just like under the oppressive heat of the Gers, we've often returned to our cosy way of spending later afternoons and evenings under the blankets on our beds, once the sun has dipped and we're waiting for the dinner hour. No doubt the climate here helps make it feel like home: in the green, wooded hill we walk along sandy tacks under trees, between centuries-old stone walls, and spontaneously remember the lanes of the North Downs Way.

Other things are very different but still recall the year. Where French villages are so often devoid of their cafes, Spanish village bars are alive each afternoon with old men playing cards. We always thought that Spanish dogs would be even more of a problem than French ones, as they are rarely behind fences or tied up. But freedom brings wisdom: Spanish dogs, free to roam, are peaceable creatures. They rarely bark, being mostly asleep, often in the middle of the road. And in their breaks from sleeping they meet up with friends in two or threes and take themselves for walks, along country lanes or through city parks. Meanwhile, Spanish cats procreate, and kittens abound.

The biggest contrast, of course, is the people. Just once of late we have eaten in a restaurant alone, freakishly given the hundred of people still walking the Camino at this late but lovely season. Nothing could be further from our splendid isolation in walking in England and northern France in January, in February in March. And yet, just like in south west France as we approached Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, we are drawing close to Santiago de Compostela with a small, amoeba-like group of people who we've come to know, in a way, and whose company has enhanced our awareness and enjoyment of these final days.

29th September 2008

Thursday 25 September 2008

Only five more walking days to go after today

Pathetic, I know, but that's how it is. There's a dizzy, de-mob air in our bedroom. We still wash our clothes, of course, but our harvesting of the soaps and sachets of shampoo is less intense.

Green fields, tiny hamlets and clear September skies: a gorgeous finish; but we've known all along that this is where we finish, and we have other things to look forward to. As David says, if one has just run a Marathon, why would one be sad not to have another mile to run?

25th September 2008

El Bierzo

Between the dry brown plains of the Meseta and rainy, Pagan-rooted Galicia lies El Bierzo. Like an emerald chalice it is cupped by the Montes de León in the east and the Cordillera Cantabrica mountain range in the north and west. In the south, the Montes Aquilianos rise up in similar, steep-sided pyramids of glacial origin to close off the hollow. The rivers Sil, Valcarce and Cúa lead the mountain waters into the El Bierzo vineyards, cherry orchards and chestnut forests. This is a region famed for its gastronomy so the restaurants proffer smoked pork sausages and sweetbreads, salt cod stew, apple cake and chestnuts with everything.

Along the lanes from Ponferrada to Cacabelos the long strip allotments roll with giant misshapen pumpkins and early on Sunday morning old men have come out to fill wheelbarrows with their red peppers, orange squashes, green lettuces and creamy beets. A woman, her blue-patterned dress two stuffed ovals like a scarecrow, squats low on a stool to methodically strip ripe white beans from their poles.

The September days are warm and clear and the climate in El Bierzo is known to be mild, almost Mediterranean. Winters are gentle, in the lower valleys anyway, where there is little snow. Only on the tops of the encircling mountains do the inhabitants see snow for much of the winter; and in these days of road improvements El Bierzo is no longer cast into immobility by snow. Yet for all the evident natural riches and easy living in the late September sun, the Bierzo region has been a poor one.

Until the 1960s the villages saw rapid depopulation: not just dying villages but dead, deserted. People went to the cities or abroad to find work; and in truth they are still going. When price fluctuations in the 1960 and 1970s made coal and steel production around Ponferrada viable for the first time since the eighteenth century, it earned a certain insouciant wealth for that village, turning it into the lively, expanding town it is today. Not until the 1980s, though, did the wines of the region - decimated by phylloxera in the early twentieth century and later replanted - improve to the point of vying with the best Riojas for quality. A secret wine, virtually unknown outside Spain.

In the 1990s the fashion for eco-tourism turned a favourable eye on the Bierzo. Its long hibernation left the region rich in historical monuments and pristine natural beauties. The pre-Roman site at Castro de Chano in the north vies for attention with pallozas, the small thatched cottages like stone yurts where people and animals lived side by side. Romanesque chapels line the path to Santiago and we walk past waterfalls and natural swimming pools, chestnut and apple trees and across mountain sides of heather and blackberries. Despite all this it is really only the hamlets and villages along the Camino de Santiago that have managed to revive in their quiet, pilgrim-dependent way. A few kilometres each way in the hills the villages are still deserted except for the occasional renovated family farm used only for summer holidays from the city. The pilgrim Euro doesn't scatter far.

But in El Acebo, Cacabelos and Molinaseca, in Pereje or Las Herrerías and in O Cebreiro the cheap concrete streets of much of northern Spain have been replaced by new cobbles. The walls of houses are straight and the window frames noticeably solid, fringed by geraniums. Cafés can be comfortable, even stylish, with a flair for playing with the gastronomic inheritance of the Bierzo and whether is it the supremely gentle vegetarian host of the Trucha del Arco de Iris bed and breakfast in El Acebo or the Paraiso del Bierzo hotel and restaurant in Las Herrerías, we have encountered hospitality that is genuine and generous and delivered with a modern sensibility for history and natural riches.

23rd September 2008

You can't kill the spirit

Wherever a length of wire fence borders the route, pilgrims lace it with twigs or grass to make crosses. Worn-out socks, old bandages and flowers all make their appearance. It's a mania. Perhaps an uncontrollable force moves them to do it.

More than anything these fences provoke warm memories of the Greenham Common peace camp. There, the fences were strung with colourful wool and ribbons woven into messages of peace; with pictures and gifts from family and friends, with photos and soft toys. The military fence was beautified - or if not beautified, then emasculated, feminised - by the women's life-affirming symbols.

All these crosses make me ponder that the spirit of Greenham Common lives on in the Camino, perhaps seeded by the women of my generation and older who we see walking indomitably on, alone. Does it live on in the thin seam of belief in the power of love to end wars that we see scrawled on the walls of underpasses? Yet the will to decorate these fences seems like an ancient ritual that people still perform, unaware of its meaning or origins.

21st September 2008

Reflecting on Rabanal

As the ground rose steadily towards Rabanal del Camino in the Montes de León our excitement rose with it. Rabanal is where the London-based Confraternity of St James runs a pilgrim hostel in partnership with the Benedictine monks next door. From the various articles we had read in the newsletter we imagined it as high and remote, a challenge to arrive at and somewhere we would stop to say hello even if, with cooler evenings and a strict admissions policy, it wasn't useful for us to stay there.

So it was a surprise to find Rabanal a relatively short and easy walk out of Astorga. Well-watered fields and allotments had lined the road before giving way to blackberries, broom and heather. A friendly little bar served us tasty gipsy toast - Spanish style, laced with alcohol - for second breakfast. And the crowds of freshly-minted pilgrims starting their walk in Astorga turned it into Regent's Park on a Sunday. More surprising still was the helicopter field on the edge of Rabanal. Not so cut off in an emergency, after all.

I guess Rabanal del Camino was one of the villages hereabouts that died out by the middle of the twentieth century, when people fled the hard winters and poverty for employment elsewhere in Spain or the Americas. But now it is mostly recovered and renovated: the streets are of cobbles rather than concrete and the slate houses honey-coloured and whole. It has a population of around fifty people that can swell by and extra two hundred and twenty or so pilgrims each night. There's no escape.

The deeply moving home-coming experience of stopping at the Confraternity hostel never materialised. Leaving aside the stern list of rules pinned to the door, the hostel was still closed to arriving pilgrims when we reached Rabanal and had already thrown everyone out and locked its doors by the time we ambled off the next morning.

In between we attended Vespers in the little village church, sung in Latin in the Gregorian tradition by the three resident monks. The reading was repeated by six or seven pilgrims in their various languages, which was impressive. Nearly everyone in the church had read that the sung Vespers experience was "special". Probably the monks are pleased to welcome so many souls each evening. It was indeed a lovely and intimate sound, and interesting to follow the Latin on paper. But as ever more latecomers rattled the door and rustled to make a space for themselves, those anticipated special Rabanal moments came dangerously close to extinction.

19th September 2008

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory v2.0

The first time I smelt crushed sap and realised that below my feet on the road's edge was green grass, I received the news like fresh water in the face: the Meseta was behind us.

Much still masqueraded as the Meseta. A straight and flat seven kilometres of road ended only when a sign announced a right-angle bend and warned local joy-riders to slow. Yet water gushed in the irrigation channels beside us to exit via sluices into small fields of tobacco and spinach. We even saw cows grazing, like a memory from a distant land. Each ditch fringed with bulrushes was a universe of shoals of tiny fish, startled frogs and mating dragonflies. The world returned to life where the fringes of the Montes do León mountains meet the upland plain.

As we walk towards Astorga those mountains which had been distant mirages easily confused with the purple clouds finally reveal their slopes of chestnut forest and cropped fields through which we can pick out the line of a road. In a day or two we will be there, in the Margaratería.

But for tonight we are in fantasy land. Every shop lining the main streets and squares of Astorga sells chocolate. Great slabs of the stuff are wrapped in old-fashioned block-printed paper that makes buying it seem a virtue of traditional values rather than a sin. Beside the chocolate are pick 'n' mix mountains of handcrafted truffles and beside them, golden pillows of the feathery sponge cakes called mantecadas.

We head for the three-roomed chocolate museum and study each grinding stone, wooden mould and metal advert with care. We read the stories on the card collections that used to come with bars of chocolate and laugh at the severe family photos of the local chocolate dynasties. One room is given over the the lithograph stones used to print the irresistible wrappers.

The "museum shop" is a simple wooden counter with a couple of dozen baskets of chocolate squares: chocolate from different countries and of different intensities. You could sample and compare to your stomach's content and the three attendants deep in their novels scarcely noticed. Our hundred grams of pure Tanzanian chocolate is a guilt (or is it gratitude?) purchase; and to avoid adding weight to our rucksacks we have to eat it in the evening sun, with the early-Gaudí, medieval-esque Bishop's Palace as a Disneyland backdrop.

17th September 2008

Monday 15 September 2008

Facing the end game

León is the last big well of civilisation before Santiago de Compostela: the last place where we'll take a day off. A small city of around 130,000 people, it shakes us up with its flair and quiet sophistication. The government of the large, wealthy Castille y León region is based here. Café society has taken over the compact old town since it was pedestrianised a few years ago. Summer has returned to find us here after the near-freezing mornings and brisk winds of the last two days. A pleasant 18C brought little children out in their old fashioned Sunday best to stroll with grandparents in the shady gardens and chase pigeons along the cobbles while their parents take a pre-lunch wine.

Ahead of us are the final sixteen days of walking. Two high mountain passes and all the foothills they bring, until the last low undulations of the seventy kilometres into Santiago. The region of Galicia, a few days away, is reputed to be green and pretty - and rainy.

Sipping a beer in the sun, it's tempting to remain here in León, surrounded by more satin and silk frocks than I've seen in one place before, and with the fascinations of the Romanesque San Isidore, the Gothic cathedral and the much more recent coloured-glass construction of the contemporary art museum. I could quietly forget to do the next sixteen days.

On the other hand, Astorgas is also still ahead of us. The capital of Spanish chocolate production.

15th September 2008

Meseta horizons

For eight days the path stretches straight and flat across the Meseta of northern Spain. A wide track, usually of gravel, sometimes of earth or small pebbles. The relentless cornfields reach to the horizon with sometimes a tree or two, or a slight ridge to climb. At this time of year the corn is cut and the stubble changes from honey to grey with the light. The sky is often monotone: hot blue or cooler steel. In this near-deprivation of the senses small things and fleeting encounters are thrown into deep relief. We are excused the task of navigating: you can see the track for miles ahead. Excused too the need to watch for trips and stumbles under our feet. With a cooler, cloudier and sometimes stormy September we don't even have the famous Meseta dehydration to worry us. And so, at last, we think.

We had thought that the whole walk would be an exercise in meditation, but there were always too many flashes to look for, too many tree roots and rock, too many birds to watch in flight or trees to consider and flowers to admire. An Indian man we meet, a Hindu, explains that real meditation lies in not trying to think but in letting yourself notice the small details around you.

For most of the people walking with us now, the Meseta is the middle section of their Camino. But we feel so close to our finish that the Meseta is where our minds turn towards the future.

People have exclaimed that we will find it hard to return to daily life after such a year, and perhaps we will. But it seems more that there is a natural turning towards the next stage. We are ready, like the natural readiness a pregnant woman feels in the last week before the birth. Beyond the certain relief that the physical and mental challenges will be over, there is an excitement.

But it is not simply to return straight into the old life. First we will allow ourselves a transition, a necessary period to absorb and understand what the walk has given us. Whether in Barcelona - as planned, although the Spanish language continues to bemuse us - or in the easier south of France, we hope to incorporate a sense of space, a facility for slowness and time together firmly into life: A chess set, and evenings teaching me how to play. Our days will be spent consolidating the creative results of the year: printing pictures and laying out books, crafting the stories the walk has given me.
It helps that we like our life. At the San Bol refugio, the Dutch hospitalera draws energy from the Milky Way and the sacred spring on which her house is built. We could assure her, sincerely, that a return to the city won't be a torture for us. Even when we do return to work, the value of a break is that it allows you to view work as play, as pleasure. Not as a master. We draw much of our energies form the people we work with and the challenges they invite us to share.

13th September 2008