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

Sketches of Spain

She - or he - was thin and fine-boned in the Asian way, hair close-cropped and androgynous. We had only two words in common: "Korea" and "England", and the waggled fingers to signify walking. While the rest of us were lumpen and wrinkled in our assorted waterproof trousers and flapping ponchos, she - or he - was serene in a Burberry mackintosh, long to the shins and carefully belted.


Thirty pigeons wheeled from the tower as the bell clanged for Mass. Inside the green-frocked priest read the lesson in Italian, then stepped forward and smiled hesitantly. His address was in English: "This reading is important because it says if two or three are ...." he circled his arms "juntos? ... then Jesus will be there: Well, we are more than three, so Jesus is here listening!"
He sighed in relief and looked towards the front pew. His eyebrows and his mouth asked "Was that alright? Did they understand?" Then he looked back towards us and beamed. Like a proud parent at the Nativity play, I wanted to clap.


Eighteen scarecrows to guard a small plot of vines isolated amid the cut corn of the Meseta. Each one the deep blue overall of labourers bulked out with the ever present straw; their heads slanting white plastic bags like the headscarves of Russian peasants. Each marched across the landscape, leaning into the wind.

Ahead as the track unfurled downwards from the ridge two far off ovals separated and one came towards us. The stubble gleamed a grey yellow under the slate sky, but not so brightly as the glint form the approaching figure. Closer, the glint became the brass name badge of Alejandro, "Friend of the Pilgrims of Boadilla del Camino". He is short, but with a military style in a belted blue jacket and green cravat, a red bag slung bandolier fashion across his chest. He wears his metal pins on the Camino like medals. He has walked out here every morning for seven years since he retired, to sit on the ridge and greet the passing pilgrims. He took our names and our photo to add to the pile "so high..." - measuring half a meter from the soil - which he already has. And, he mentioned with a wicked smirk, all the lady pilgrims give him a kiss on both cheeks...

El Burgo Ranero. A frontier-feeling village where the most exciting thing is watching the straw-and-mud houses slowly dissolve in the rain. Inside the steamy bar, once all have eaten their hot dinners, the afternoon passes with the harsh snaps and dry rumblings of dominos on formica, as the eight old men in flat caps and Arran-style sweaters keep their wits alive.


As the carved wooden Virgin on her throne was borne shoulder-height away from the sunken chapel, the women of the village followed behind, singing hymns. The priest called for them to slow down while a tiny woman in a blue two-piece suit was helped up the steep stone steps to the road. And off they went, to the main church up the hill, whose bell clanged them in. It was important for the old woman to follow the Virgin. I expect she had done so on this date all her life. A neighbour came out of her house to lend an arm: But where the hill started, the old lady waved the others off and inched back to her home by the chapel.


Leaving Burgos in the aftermath of rain we passed an oddly-assorted couple and predicted archly that they wouldn't last long: one of the random pairings that happen between people walking the Camino alone. She was small and blond, with a rucksack nearly her own height; and she walked quickly with a tall stick in one hand. He was tall, lean and dark. He wore jeans and carried a tiny day sack over one shoulder, a large camera over the other. She stopped periodically to gaze back at where he had stopped for yet another perfect photo-op. Later, we saw that they had exchanged rucksacks. "That'll curb photography's hold on him," she must have thought. Later still we saw the lad being carried back along the track, riding pillion on a trail bike. The girl was nowhere in sight.
The hospitalera of San Bol is everything you think a young Dutch woman should be: tall and blond with slender bones and clear grey eyes. Able to speak several languages well, and idealistic, she took over running the 8-bed refugio just three weeks ago. She has walked 4000 kilometres along the different routes to Santiago, but this, she thinks, is the only true route. It follows the Milky Way and draws strength from the millions of people walking the same soil for centuries. So San Bol, she hopes, will be the place she finally feels at home.

She led us to the fresh water spring in the grove of poplars, and while we filled our bottles where the water ran into a large concrete bath, she washed her dishes where it left the tank and created a stream. "Every morning, when the sun rises, I have my bath here. A cold bath feels less cold than a cold shower, I think. And then I do my exercises under the trees." She smiled serenely and I hid a shudder. Perhaps in the height of summer it would feel different, yet she intends to continue here in the winter.

Back at the little building, she persuaded David to lie on the ground between the bunk beds and experience "the strange calm and strength of this special place." I settled for a herb tea and conversation. The girl wore a draping lilac skirt held up by a knot. With no electricity, the dark room was kitchen, dining room, office and store, and hung with crystals and dream-catchers; and clear plastic freezer bags filled with water to confuse flies. No one knows how it works, but as she slipped into Spanish with a Mexican boy and French with four pensioners, everyone agreed it is an old wives' cure that seems to work.

There's a tall, austere man stalking this part of the Camino. In military green and with a bald head under his beret I take him for a veteran of the Foreign Legion. He carries a sleeping bag under his arm in a supermarket bag and the rest of his possessions in an old canvas knapsack held together with safety pins. Sometimes we see him sleeping rough, washing in the village fountains: At other times, maybe when rain threatens, he's in the hostels, sitting slightly aloof among the chatter round beers in the bars. But at other times he beams toothily and approaches any new stranger to present them with a religious or uplifting tract scrawled in pencil on a sheet torn from an exercise book. That usually ends his conversations, but we chose to speak, and he wrote us messages in French and English too. I still have them. He is possibly one of the more cultured, intelligent people we have met. Growing up in Blois, his family moved to Madrid where he still lives. He loves the Prado but is looking for somewhere smaller to retire to. His brother, now dead, went to London and our pilgrim sometimes visits his nephews there. But for now, we track his passing by the familiar scrawl on school paper on bar counters and reception desks along the route.
11th September 2008

Saturday 13 September 2008


The Meseta is a giant lurking in the legends of pilgrims, just like the Roncesvalles pass. It intimidates with tales of dehydration and sunstroke and the even tougher mental anguish of boredom. There are endless kilometres of flat, distraction-less tracks, clear, straight and hot; and many are those who give up along the way and catch the bus to León.

We, however, were gifted with possibly the best of seasons to cross these eight days of cornfields. There were pink sunrises into which we inserted ourselves in a long line of ones and twos, planning to avoid midday walking. But the famed heat rarely arrived. This September has started with cooler breezes spinning off from storms across the Atlantic, and a sun that warms rather than bakes. Mackerel clouds have shrouded the sun just when it might have become too hot, and if rain or morning mist have sometimes taken us by surprise, they have served to add texture to the flat monotony.

But there was always that section. The one people use to define the Meseta. The one that, knowing little in advance, grows to be the character of the whole Meseta and causes advance sales of spare water bottles and parasols. Seventeen kilometres without shade or a single water tap, much less a bar in one of the villages that regularly punctuate the way. The thought of that Meseta has lain in my mind all year, along with the mountain peaks, as a challenge to which we had to rise.

It begins after Carrión de los Condes, which doesn't mean, as we imagined it does, "carrion for the eagles". Carrión is a pretty little town an hour from where we had slept. Oddly, for late morning, dozens of pilgrims were sitting in bars or on park benches, shopping for food or simply putting off the moment of setting out. The night had ended with a giant thunder storm and lightening that led to downpours and turned the tracks to mud. People were shaken from their rhythms. But now it was clear, and they seemed destined to wait for late afternoon to set out.

It was half past eleven when we moved on. The trailing breeze from the storm balanced the sun and even through the middle of the day kept us from overheating. Along the track beside an old country road there were frequent trees to give moments of shade, and there were even stretches lined with poplars for rustling refreshment. After an hour, the ruined Franciscan abbey of Santa María de Benivivire peeped like a shy country estate from its grove. Then we were onto the Via Aquitana, a straight, flat Roman road used to carry gold from Astorgas to Bordeaux. In the straight, flat, Roman way we could see our path, unchanging, for many kilometres ahead and behind, and count the other pilgrims who had risked the high sun: three.

For over two hours, then, there really was no shade to walk in. We picnicked sitting on rolls of straw and two of the three fellow walkers passed us by with grunted "Buen camino"s. Further on, a slab of shade from a collapsing barn might have saved lives; but the combination of tree, concrete benches and tables and a tap serving "unclean" water might have taken lives instead.

As the ground, impossibly, became flatter and more featureless, the horizons stretched so far that they ceased to exist and the monotony ground its way into our spirits. Though we weren't baking, a quiet desperation burned its way into our minds. And as we walked, the breeze turned to wind, blowing storm clouds to circle around us. Our hostess of the night before had spent breakfast spinning stories of the girl she had seen killed by lightning, and the deadly storms on the Meseta earlier in the year. I eyed the towering clouds, calculating the moment to fling my metal walking sticks far from me.

Three hours after Carrión and after three false mirages, the church tower of Calzadilla de la Cuerza came into view. But in these distances, things take a long time to arrive. Nearly another hour passed before the little village suddenly revealed itself in a slight hollow. Rarely have I been so pleased to see such ramshackle buildings.

The hostel had announced, nine kilometres earlier via a yellow-painted message on the single, deserted road we had crossed, that it possessed "an animated bar". No wonder. If everyone arriving had the same intense relief as I had, there would be a party indeed tonight.

9th September 2008

Friday 5 September 2008

Little people

The Munchkins have come to Burgos. Little people with square cheeks and the deeply chiselled bronze faces of years in the fields. They giggle and sigh in their matching lime neck scarves that announce them to be on a pilgrimage to Burgos from their home in Avisto - wherever that is. Pilgrimage or coach trip, we're swept up in their stream through the cloisters of Burgos Cathedral, bobbing above them like fishing floats. Later, free range Munchins can be detected in most bars of the city centre.

A friend once told me that in his Spanish wife's family, the parents and grandparents were tiny; but with the generations raised from the waning of the Dictatorship onwards, her relatives were all giants in comparison. Could good nutrition and freedom from poverty really have such an impact in a single generation?

5th September 2008

Castles in Spain

We had expected a southerly progression of Gothic architecture as a theme of our journey, given that the Santiago pilgrimage's popularity and consequent wealth-generation reached its height during the period of Romanesque and Gothic blooming. But now our heads are spinning and we don't understand.

In France, that southerly drift of building materials had made sense, from the northern pale and hard stone to the dark granite and basalt of the volcanic centre and thence into the soft red bricks or sandstone of the south. We plotted the logical and techno-logical development from Romanesque to early, classic, rayonnant and flamboyant Gothic styles as the architects' confidence grew. We could sympathise when, in the far south, they turned their backs on Gothic's conceptual origins by making windows small again, shutting out the punishing light.

Yet beyond the mountains it all goes opaque. So many of the churches doubled as fortresses, lending bodily as well as spiritual protection. Could that be why we're so lost? Or is it that the buildings leap straight from the Romanesque into Baroque, ignoring evolution with just an occasional toe on the stepping stone of very late "florid" Gothic. We try to read the cathedrals and monasteries as a textbook of building, just as we could in Normandy and Picardy, but we are left perplexed. Guide books use terms like "herrerian" and "plateresque", words which mean nothing to us. There are blind west ends that have been built into the defensive walls, blind clerestories and chiselled stone balustrades for galleries where no gallery should be. Side chapels have domes or unnecesary vaulting and in many churches the choir - traditionally associated with the high altar at the symbolic 'head' of the church, part of the sanctuary separated from the public area - is to be found at the back instead, sometimes above your head in a mezzanine gallery.

An alternative explanation for these odd leaps of architecture might be that the monasteries and cathedrals along the Spanish pilgrim routes were already going strong in the time when Romanesque was still the architecture of repute; and no one saw the need to fiddle with the magnificent buildings until the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, when South America brought Spain both fabulous wealth and the leading public relations job in holding back protestantism.

So in the Iglésia de Santiago in Puenta la Reina the Romanesque imagination in the portal has beasts and apostles, trees and demons in beautiful flat carving, and a looping fringe that hangs down in an almost Moorish fashion. Inside, the Romanesque severity of the walls, whose trancept was the merest nod towards a widening, carried flowing vaults of the extended ceiling of the late Gothic period effortlessly. The monastery of Santa María del Real in Iranche has a small cloister and church that are simple, peaceful and plain in the face of the Renaisance and Baroque additions elsewhere in the complex. Of the Cathedral in Santo Domingo de la Calzada, it is the chancel and apse that stay in the mind, with their unique patterned columns surrounding the high altar. Almost contemporay to our eyes, in their rhythmic patterning of the white stone lit from below. The small monastery church in San Juan de Ortega is filled with peace and an identifiable joy against the hubbub of pilgrims greeting each other outside. It reached the heights of Romanesque ingenuity and carving, where multiple receding window columns in the deep walls are a game with hidden light, as is the capital in a dark corner, where the carving of the Anunciation receives it´s ray of sunlight only twice a year, at the equinoxes.

In Torres del Rio there are traces of Moorish influence which reach even further back. The tiny Iglésia del San Sepulcro is a single-domed, octagonal graveside church that mingles elaborate, wide vaulting, chequerboard patterns and delicately carved stone lacework over the slit windows with the traditional curved arches of the Romanesque.

Some rare examples of 'real' Gothic surprise and delight us, but serve to confuse us further with how they got there. In Los Arcos the carved bays of the Gothic cloister are like fresh water after the Iglésia de Santa María's interior, where not an inch of the surface has been left unpainted or ungilded. The Iglésia de Santa María de Palacio in Logroño has a spikey steeple that is straight from Senlis in northern France. The wonderful Monastery of Santa María la Real in Nájera is rooted deeply in late Gothic and given its royal inheritance is a showpiece of humourous and naturalistic wood carving, in the darkly patina'd miserichords of the raised choir under roof vaults that are from the peak of Gothic conception.

Suddenly, in Burgos, there is a whole Cathedral whose external appearence, at least, is the direct cousin of northern French Gothic, from spiked steeple to arcade of kings.

But too often the bling of Baroque swept into these buildings and landed, gilded custard pie-like onto the Romanesque or Gothic structures. We had to peer hard to detect the good bones of the original under the cellulite ripplings of the seventeenth century in such places as the Iglésia de Santa María in Los Arcos, the Cathedral in Logroño or the many churches in Pamplona. Yet familiarity can sometimes confuse the senses and kill taste. With constant exposure we start to compare and make judgements. There are even moments when we think "it works", like in Puenta la Reina where somehow the austerity of the original church allowed it to carry the Baroque altar as an addition not an imposition.

Walking in half way through Mass in Navarette, I realised the service was in French and found myself giving the responses with everyone else, so stayed. As a fellow pilgrim, it appears the priest says Mass in the local church wherever he stops each night. There he stood in his white triangular robes with strips of gold in front of that soaring gold cacophony of an altar that is punctuated by vividly-painted statues of saints and apostles rising ever upwards. And for the first time I saw how it fitted. The priest with the outdated clothes and the over-the-top altar complimented each other in the same sense of mystic ceremony.

But in the face of the very ostentation of these churches the protestant roots of me rebelled. Bowing every time the priest mentioned Mary, Jesus or God reminded me of the rocking of Muslim or Jewish responses to words spoken; although in those religions I find nothing wrong with the idea. But saluting Mary first? No.

And the socialist roots in me couldn't accept that only the priest could taste the wine, quaffing deeply and rubbing the chalice with linen so every speck of red was removed from the danger of being touched by the populace. The rest had to be content with dry wafers. Jan Huss, where art thou? What happened to the right for everyone to commune "in both parts"? The self-satisfied trumpet blowing of Baroque gold must surely have lit the fires of both protestantism and revolution.

5th September 2008