Saturday 23 August 2008

Walking Spanish down the hall

These things are different in Spain:

  • People don´t say "hello" as a new arrival enters a shop or bar.

We walk in an almost constant chain of people and have to modulate our pace, so we don´t trip over them.

Bits of lost clothing are snagged on branches at regular intervals. You could dress yourself from these items of drying laundry.

The hostels sleep ninety to a room. Or more.

  • Village streets are of concrete, rapid to lay and cheap.
  • We can´t communicate.

There is a mania for covering countryside paths with nice, tidy, easy ribbons of concrete. Ouch.

  • In villages and old town centres you can´t see a shop or bar until you are upon it: no new plate glass and neon here. If it´s in the long, closed hours of the afternoon, all you´ll see (or walk right past) are the closed shutters of what might be a barn door.

In Pamplona the pedestrian crossings count down the seconds till you can cross and again the seconds you have left to cross. It doesn´t change people´s behaviour, but the little green man speeding up towards the end makes people laugh.

  • Spanish people are fatter than French people: No, that´s not right. There are thin Spanish people. But a lot of Spanish people are a lot fatter.
  • Breakfast can contain a tower of freshly friend donuts dipped into melted chocolate. Or toasted bread spread with olive oil and salt. See above.

In laundrettes, women in white take your clothes and wave you away for two hours, to go look around.

    • There are thousands of adverts on TV, most of them while you´re waiting for the weather forecast.

    There are always too many walkers for the café´s chairs.

    • Fresh-pressed orange juice is everywhere.

    • Drinks are cheaper.
    • Set menus, especially if aimed at pilgrims, are pretty industrial-tasting.
    • Double beds are rare.
    • Everything happens late.

    Yellow arrows are much harder to spot than red and white flashes.

    • The idea of savoury things for breakfast is not strange.

    Dogs are much quieter.

    • They´ve heard of fruit smoothies and Oil of Olay. But not Orangina.
    • Even bars shut for vast hours of the afternoon.
    • Children stay up late. Very late. Usually playing and screaming outside our room.
    • Church clocks don´t stop chiming till midnight.
    • There´s yet another computer keyboard layout to learn.
    20th August 2008

    Jeux sans frontiers

    At around three on Sunday afternoon we entered Spain. After seven months and seventeen days, the crossing wasn´t entirely as planned, but I think we made it within half an hour of each other.

    Leaving behind the festival of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port, which had cheerfully gathered us in to two nights of drinking, eating, parading and concerts (plus an amusing cod version of the Pamplona bull running), we rose swiftly through the scarves of morning cloud that lay rumpled on the hills´shoulders like the Basque neckerchieves of last night´s revelllers. The air was moist but not too cold: 17 ºC or so, and although overcast there were shafts of sun to select this field of sheep or that white-washed village for special display. The lower foothills to the Pyrénées were sharp green pyramids piped with the darker green of low trees and hedges.

    Higher up, trees closed around us then opened onto the short-grazed wild pastureland where the long-haired Basque sheep and herds of horses have right of way over cars and pilgrims. Then bracken, turning to autumn at its base, and heather turning to purple lined our grassy shortcut across the shoulder of a hill. Above the first pass, twelve Red Kites had found something to gather about, ominously.

    I hadn´t expected this. I had buried my fear of the high places and set out with confident visions of the moment of arriving at the Spanish border, so it was was disturbing that the approach to the Pyrénées was quite this suburban. There were walkers all around us, some stopping to stretch and loosen up on their first day´s walk of the Camino. For the first time Italian and Spanish was added to the French, Dutch and German we heard spoken. And the road was a constant slalom of sightseeing tourists and locals descending for bread and Mass. Large roadside panels instructed pilgrims to walk in Indian file and warned drivers to look out for sheep and walkers. So it was both an easier and harder walk than I had imagined.

    The first fifteen kilometers or so out of Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port are on road, starting out between the neat gardens of detached family homes and then winding away to hamlets and finally scattered farms till eventually the bare mountaintop is reached. And it was steep: something I had expected. I climbed 3000 feet in 10 miles. Coming out of Conques a few days before we had climbed nearly 2000 feet in a mile or so, an even steeper gradient, at the end of which every stitch of clothing down to my knees was dripping with sweat and my lungs were exploding. But once it was done, it was done, and there was a café for a warming drink and, after a while, sun to heat me through.

    But the Route Napoleon, as it is known, just went on and on till the sweat was way past my knees; and the higher we climbed the cooler it grew. My lungs were done exploding: my heart was about to join them. And people around me were still talking! Then the whole anti-immune, hey-let´s-attack-my-own-body thing kicked in and I had three options: keep going uphill faster and faster to keep my temperature above zero; stop for something to eat to get energy and die of hypothermia in five seconds; or fling myself at that lone 4x4 just appearing over the horizon. I chose the latter. Hitchhiking is not something I´d do at home, but on the Camino it´s different.

    The confused but unltimately wonderful Spanish couple I thrust myself upon, Esther and Mikel, had soon swept my body and my bag into their car, tried and failed to persuade David to join us, and then taken me on a jolly roller-coaster of a ride on the mountain roads into Spain. They didn´t even seem to mind when, after dramatically altering the course of their Sunday drive out for a picnic from their home near San Sebastian, I then shouted to pull over quick, as I had to vomit; after which I was installed in the front seat. Esther and Mikel took me right to the door of the hotel, waving away my suggestion that I could get a taxi from Val Carlos. They pressed their picnic upon me and were generally such cheerful and generous saviour-angels that I hope very much they´ll visit us in London one day so I can thank them properly. Will the rest of us do the same when a wild-looking stranger flings themselves at our car? Even more fittingly for me, perhaps, was that my crossing of the frontier was in the midst of an unavoidable crash course in remembering the Spanish I had once learned. By evening, while my heart, lungs and innards were still recovering from their pummelling, I had the consolation of already thinking in Spanish with the French tucked back into the storage part of my brain.

    David, meanwhile, strode on and on, overtaking all other walkers and enjoying the freedom to push his body hard for a change. Occasionally we have seen sculptures on the gothic portals of cathedrals, of the Devil tempting a pilgrim with water to drink or a soft bed. The good pilgrim always refuses; and in this we can see that David passes the good pilgrim test.

    There were two more steep climbs to come of nearly a thousand feet in just over a mile to the Col de Benarte and the last great rise to the Spanish border at the Col de Lepolder. The landscape there is a reversal of the high bare mountain or pine trees of expectation. It is a broadleaf forest and a small monument is now all that marks the crossing into Spain.

    That was David´s job nearly done for the day. A rapid descent of nine and a half miles, dropping some 1800 feet, lay ahead into the Roncesvalles of legend - too rapid, according to his toes and shins - and the massive monastery/hostel where already anxious pilgrims were stacking their rucksacks in order of arrival, hoping there would be enough beds and hot water for them when the hostel eventually opened its doors. But now even David let the Devil in, downing an icecream and heading off to the hotel in Burguète instead, to find me, the bath, and a cold beer.

    17th August 2008

    Wednesday 13 August 2008


    Deep in the gloaming of a wood; distant on a metal bridgehead in the mist; or glowing with borrowed radiance on a rock at our feet, the red and white stripes that mark the Grandes Randonées of France have been our friends and guides for eight months. In a day or two we will leave them to be faithless with the yellow arrows of the Spanish camino.

    In French they are called balises but to us they are flashes, and a part of our everyday conversation. Simply and consistently the horizontal paint on any convenient structure has said yes, we were on the right path. Tilted into a cross, the red and white dissuaded us from any wrong turn and where a white elbow was added, left or right, we knew that a turn was coming. Simple, cheap, trusted.

    13th August 2008

    A cross marks the spot

    France is thickly sown with the crosses of centuries that mark turnings and crossroads, places of death or pilgrimage; that mark thanks for successful overseas missions or for deliverance from difficulty. It doesn’t matter what the crosses are made of. It is the surge of emotion they represent that moves us.

    There are ancient Celtic carvings in grey stone in the Basque country; while on the road to Espalion by the Lot river, a romanesque cross in pink granite shows Saint Hilarian carrying his head home to his mother after it was chopped off by the Saracens.

    Many are the tall iron crosses with intricate garlands, hearts or cherubs that are the work of some local blacksmith. I remember suffering Christs in eerie flesh tones against the steel skies of Picardy. And the red-painted four-by-four posts nailed together under a tree at the turning for Vézeley. Was it the glowing red paint or the yellow rape in the field behind that made this simple cross such a landmark?

    In spring we read the “Song of Roland”, the early Medieval poem of the legend of Charlemagne and his nephew Roland, who beat the Moors at the Roncevaux pass from France into Spain. Roland died valiantly in the battle and on the rock where his body fell a cross was erected, still known as the Cross of Roland. It is a montjoie, named after Charlemagne’s battle cry and a word still used for so many of the crosses of the St Jacques’ route – cries of triumph and thanks in high places.

    I don’t know if the people of the Auvergne are naturally more pious than their compatriots or whether in the splendidly austere Aubrac plateau with its summer cattle drives and frozen winters, the need for guidance and reassurance is that much greater. A fifteen-mile walk here is punctuated by fifteen or more crosses. Before 1182, when a Benedictine hospice was built at Nasbinals, pilgrims had to traverse all 120 kilometres of the Aubrac plateau without shelter. The sight of a cross against the horizon must have been especially welcome then. But not all these crosses are of such long standing. In 2004 a new cross was placed on the path above Aumont-Aubrac in recognition that we each have a cross to bear. That one was splendidly carved and polished, but more often two branches are laced together with twine and propped upright in a cairn of stones to which every passing pilgrim adds their pebble. These latter-day pilgrims’ crosses are, I feel instinctively, both a guide for fellow walkers and joyful shouts of thanks for the view, for the peace, for the freedom simply to walk.

    10th August 2008

    The way of the stars

    Once upon a very long time ago, back before electricity, people knew which way to go for the shrine at Santiago de Compostela because they could follow the Milky Way. Campus Stellae, the field of stars. Or was Compostela so named for the field where the shepherd Pelago discovered the body of St James under a guiding star? It's a point hotly debated.

    Of equal debate is what we shall eat tonight. Shall it be the boiled eggs with clams and chive butter on soldiers? Or the veal kidneys and lobster with figs? For dessert, the soup of red fruits, perhaps? Because the Grand Hôtel Prouhèze in Aumont-Aubrac has a Michelin-starred restaurant and is the reason we are staying here. It also has the fattest cat (at 10 kilos) and dog I have ever encountered. Michelin-reared, and for that the chef and owner Pierre Roudgé makes no apology the next morning as he pours melted chocolate into my cup.

    The Hostellerie du Clos in Chablis was our first Michelin star of the trip, although Au Pied des Marais in Normandy was well on its way. Sadly the three stars of Michel Bras in Laguiole were denied us this August, but the glittering star of the Hôtel des Pyrénées in Saint-Jean-Pied-de-Port will fortify us for the ascent into Spain. A way of the stars, indeed.

    It’s said that whether your pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela is religiously-inspired or not, everyone comes to know themselves more honestly than when they started. And so, I guess, we do.

    5th August 2008

    Praying for world peace

    In Le-Puy-en-Velay in the Cathedral at the top of seemingly endless stone steps, a service is held at seven o’clock each morning for the pilgrims about to set out on their walk. This is the most popular departure point in France, so for most people at the service the steps back down from the Cathedral do indeed signal their first footsteps along the road to Santiago.

    The priest was a young man who devoted much thought and care to making what might have been a ritual performance into something personal for each of us. Then he invited us to take from a basket a slip of paper on which visitors had written their prayers. Each pilgrim would take one and pray for the writer every day along the road. Carried away by the occasion, I took one. Then worried what I would be asked to do.

    Phew! “World peace and harmony among all religions.” Tick: I can ask for that. And for the monks struggling for freedom for their country in Tibet. Yep, I’ll go along with that too. Then a prayer for the health in old age of the writer’s aunt and uncle. A thing that, thinking of my own relatives and friends, I can certainly sympathise with. Next, touchingly, the writer asked for comfort after his “first heartbreak” at age sixteen. Ah yes, that way lies wisdom. And a PS: please could I pray for his parents, because he loves them a lot despite annoying them endlessly.

    So most conscientiously each day, at a turn in the track or in the cool of a village chapel, I pray for world peace. And all the rest.

    2nd August 2008