The story so far – fifteen months on the disaster trail

The shadow over politics, the Brexit shadow, is one vast distraction. I feel I have to escape the shadow before I address other political subjects. But those other subjects – they’re all impacted in some way by Brexit, not least by the uncertainty associated with Brexit.

Take the environment, for example. UK environmental law is tied into European. Projects are EU-financed, standards, ideals, aspirations are shared. I remember at Finistera, at the end of the Camino, last autumn, noting how environment projects there were funded by the EU. I’d shared the Camino with many nations, and I loved that confirmation that many nations shared those standards, lived by a common framework. We know that Brexit free-traders cosy up to climate-change deniers, are casual about man-made changes to the environment – human ingenuity, they argue, has coped, and will always cope. All hinges on that one word ‘cope’.  Does the world we have around us, and that we’re projecting for our futures, mean that we’ve ‘coped’?

Human rights – the European Convention on Human Rights, which followed on from the UN Convention, and unlike the UN Convention is legally enforceable. Before the European courts. So for that reason we should exit it, according to Theresa May. As Philippe Sands (author of the remarkable East-West Street) pointed out when talking at the Cheltenham Literary Festival last Sunday, more than any other country we – the UK – gave Europe the convention. It was a British inspiration. Hersch Lauterpacht, who pioneered so much (beginning life in Lviv, in modern Ukraine: he left in the 1920s, his family were wiped out in the holocaust), was latterly a Cambridge professor.

Farming policy: how will policy change, how will farmers be financed, once we exit the EU, and exit the Common Agricultural Policy? CAP funding is based primarily on the amount of land farmed , so big farmers (mostly Tory supporters) benefit most. On the other hand, to quote a Scottish hill-farmer in a Reuters report: ‘The bloody-mindedness of the French or the Irish in standing up for agriculture was not just standing up for their farmers but brought a good deal for us as well.’ Post-Brexit, where will the money be directed? We are promised ‘a major policy overhaul’. Will the acreage farmed continue to dictate funding?  How might our landscapes change? Will the much-hyped new trade deals bring in cheaper farm imports , with knock-on effects on farm prices – other farming countries have more clout than we do. And what of cheap farm labour from Eastern Europe?  Michael Gove wants to prioritise the environment in any new scheme. But we’ve no idea how that will work out in practice, and legislation will be fast-tracked through parliament – fundamental changes pushed through with minimal public debate.

The Cheltenham Literary Festival has brought to the town an impressive range of politicians, journalists, singers (Peggy Seeger), mountaineers (Chris Bonington), sportsmen (Mike Brearley, Jonny Bairstow), TV stars, performers, poets, novelists….

Among the politicians was Chris Patten. I’ll leave his words to speak for themselves.

Referenda ‘are fundamentally anti-democratic in our system and I wouldn’t have anything to do with them’. (I can’t recall Patten’s exact words in Cheltenham – I’m quoting from another interview he gave.) Leavers in the Brexit campaign peddled a dubious notion of sovereignty (‘dubious’ was his polite word in Cheltenham – I see that elsewhere he’s spoken of ‘all this ideological crap about sovereignty and taking back control’). Brexit itself is ‘the single most calamitous act of self-harm in my lifetime’.

Philippe Sands, also at Cheltenham, put the remarkable achievement that the EU represents in the context of the preceding centuries of war. How casual can we be to turn our backs? He mentioned that Boris Johnson has been a friend for thirty years. How, he wondered, do you sustain such friendships in present times? Brexit has brought the obsessive tendencies of the further reaches of the Right, and Left, to centre stage. The centre ground of rational idea-based, truth-invigilated debate, is out of fashion.

Boris’s dad, Stanley, has written a novel. He and Vince Cable, also a new novelist, were a Cheltenham double-act. Boris’s novel assumes a Russian plot behind Brexit, enough to bring Brexit down. But he himself has changed sides from EU-supporting environmentalist to that contradiction in terms, a Brexit-supporting environmentalist.

Vince Cable outlined how higher education, the number of foreign students in the UK, intra-university cooperation across Europe were being threatened by Brexit. Stanley’s response, ‘Vince may be right, but he may not be.’ That was the limit of his response.

‘He may not be’ – that is standard Brexit-speak. You don’t need to address the detailed argument. It’s enough to suggest these days that’s there’s another point of view, however weak. And that point of view gets equal billing. The climate-change debate over again.

Jeremy Hunt, health secretary, is a one-time Remainer, now a Leaver – the damage, he suggests, to the economy that leaving was supposed to cause hasn’t happened. Is he now a convert to the hard-Brexit free-traders’ prognosis of a free-trade nirvana which will somehow subvert a world where protectionism and self interest are ever more asserting themselves? Or the Hammond soft version?

As the economy,  we haven’t left yet, we’re in a phoney-war period, a state of suspended grace which might just allow us to pull back from the brink – but the brink is too enticing. That itself is another aspect of Brexit – how supposed conservatives, the slow and steady incremental movers of politics, overnight become practitioners of brinkmanship.

Brexit is not only a bizarre course in terms of the economy, it is extraordinarily damaging to the democratic process, not just by giving referenda precedence over parliamentary democracy (so we have the question, can an act of parliament over-ride a referendum result – where does sovereignty lie?) but by polarising debate, taking out the common ground that most of the Right and Left shared until 2015.

Not only is the common ground not shared – it’s now scorned. So the John Majors, Chris Pattens, Nick Cleggs – they are old-school, flag-wavers of a different age. That would apply to me, and to most of my peers …

 

Time to chill out?

Tomorrow I’m heading off to Herefordshire for ten days’ vipassana (insight) meditation. Up in the very small hours and no contact with the outside world, and silent throughout. I will put all politics behind me. I will have no way of knowing the American election result until five days after the result is announced. Much as the result concerns me I will be better for it. Clinton or Trump, the world will take what direction it will. Likewise Brexit. I in my small corner will re-engage when the time comes, just to be part of the process.

But continue with my blog? Time to let the world loose, spare the world – and myself – my take on it? Who listens, who reads? All along, over seven years, I’ve tried to put over my own considered view. To understand the world from a (sort of!) Zen perspective, but at the same time to engage.

Some of us may choose to stand apart, others to engage. Both are equally valid. As I put it when I stared this blog seven years ago I wanted to [take] the trash and the hyperbole out of politics and [try] to look at people and issues in a way that’s detached from emotion and as they really are. Can be very hard to find these days. Zen is living in the moment and not somewhere else past or future….

The downside? Blogs take over. You organise your moment-by-moment, hour-by-hour thinking in terms of how it might appear in a blog. It’s harder to skim, to browse, to just absorb what you read or hear.

Worse, blogs and creativity, blogs and poetry are uneasy bedfellows. There’s a randomness, an complete unexectedness, something of the suck-it-and-see about poetry. You’ve a starting-point and a sense of direction. And no idea of an ending

With a blog it’s all about argument and conclusion. Though occasionally, as in my last All Hallows post, a little bit of creativity creeps in.

So will I return to this blog when I’m back from my time-out?

There has to be something obsessive about a political blog, and I may want to put obsession behind me. To walk and run and sing and play my guitar; to meditate and dream, to create; to give practical help to a charity, a church, even a political party. To go with the flow of the world, rather than try and arrest it – try and put it down in print and words.

We shall see. Maybe I’ll start Zentravel blog, and the Tao, the Camino, the way, will be my inspiration. Maybe Zenpolitics will become occasional, and less politicised. More chilled.

Do come back and take a look sometime

 

 

 

 

On the road 

Afoot and light-hearted I take to the open road,/Healthy, free, the world before me,  /The long brown path before me leading wherever I choose.              Walt Whitman, Song of the Open Road

Whitman walked, we’re driving. We’re in the USA. A far cry from the Camino. And yet….

We’ve not planned our journey, we don’t have expectations, there isn’t a goal. There’s no history along the way, the road is open, everyone and no-one has trodden this route before us. Encounters with God are accidental not planned. We don’t walk or shuffle, we drive. Our minds picks up the blisters, wheels the wear and tear, not our feet.

We travel in a straight line, travelling west, heading for the sierras and the ocean. America travels in straight lines. Or back east. Start in New York, or California. Route 1 or Route 66, or the Pacific Coast Highway. Keep travelling.

The hobo, riding the blinds… rootless … looking for work: ‘I’ve been doing some hard travellin’, as Woody Guthrie sang.

The Beats by contrast had it easy. Kerouac was out of Columbia University. But like the hobos they were footloose, in mind and body. Searching for God, as Kerouac put it, not work.

Heirs of Whitman, and Emerson, and Thoreau. Even John Muir, though the Beats travelled the road not the wilderness.

They’d escaped the impact of war, the road network arrowed across America, an invitation, the cars that travelled it were streamlined. How lucky and how unlucky they were. War and its aftermath were three thousand miles away, too young to fight or worry, they didn’t have to agonise over combat or parade a political conscience. They were beyond their upbringing… drugs and sex came easily. And jazz. California Zen was a convenient religion – Dharma Bums as well as On the Road.

The Midwest and California have their own dreams and myths. The Beats were originally out of New York, but found California. California lifestyle reinterprets America. Putting up a different dream against New York. Not a Hollywood dream. Precursors to hippies, but they didn’t seek to change the world – not just yet. Challenge because they couldn’t help it – witness the obscenity trials – but not change it. America was their head space, not a place beyond.

They could be measured, a little bit lyrical:

‘Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.’ (Kerouac, On The Road)

And out of their minds:

‘I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked,/dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix,…./who passed through universities with radiant cool eyes hallucinating Arkansas and Blake-light tragedy among the scholars of war,/who were expelled from the academies for crazy & publishing obscene odes on the windows of the skull….(Howl, Ginsberg)

And as for me…

It’s 1971 – I’m on the open road, on the Beat trail, starting in New York, ending in California. A road journey, yes, but no automobile of my own. And I’m not hitch-hiking. Taking Greyhound buses city to city. The bus has its own iconography. Bus stations, hostels, camping out with friends in New Jersey, Toronto, Atlanta, Colorado, San Francisco, San Diego. Sleeping rough in Chattanooga. I couldn’t listen to music – but I could read. So Whitman and his streams of consciousness my companion. And Albert Marcuse. Mine was a counter-culture. I might teach history on California, but I wasn’t planning to sully myself with any other work along the way. No encounters with God, but charity from a Baptist preacher who paid for my breakfast and invited me to lunch with his family – but first I must attend his Sunday morning service, and hear him preach.

The long road north out of Texas, straight and parched and empty. Colorado I sensed was still Indian country. San Diego: we were all still hippies at heart. Barefoot and beaten by the sun. I could have tried surfing but instead I headed south, took to the road again, to Mexico. But the Mexicans wouldn’t let me in. Hair too long. Strange irony. They weren’t sure they wanted me back in America either. They cut back my visa to one month. I returned to Mexicali my hair shorn and my ears, unaccustomed to the sun, grew burnt and blistered, as I headed south to Oaxaca, the Yucatan and Chichen Itza.

Did the road came first, or the need to travel it? The road without destination, always going somewhere. Road movies aren’t about physical, but personal destinations. About setting out and avoiding arriving. Not seeking self-knowledge …but maybe achieving it. Though not knowing what to do with it.

My trip was my own road movie, before they invented the genre.

The road’s just one agenda for America. America has multiple agendas, it’s own powerful myths and images, but they have a kind of surface quality. Still a dream. Europe has multi-thousand years of history interwoven into its structures, artefacts and traditions. They root us, define us, hold us back and lift us up – America isn’t tied down – it looks for, loses, its way, finds it again.

James Dean on the one hand, Howl on the other. Drugs, sex, Zen … they are unto themselves, not adjuncts of another culture, a music, a street culture.

I’ve avoided the noise and anger and foolery of America for a while. But I’ll go back. Maybe because there’s no place for complacency – and no place for rebellion – quite like it. It has open spaces, and straight roads, and you can still be alone there. And the skies are big. And there are millions there like me. Chugging along, rebels at heart.

Finisterre – a few hours at the end of summer

Finisterre (Fisterra), Sunday 11th September. There’s a story in the photos below.

Mist down all day, clears to my surprise at 4 o’clock, initially only over the Finisterre peninsula, and even then it’s always present, as if only the slightest movement of air will cause it to re-form. There’s a radiance, an iridescence in and about the air. Should we sail out now into the ocean, to a spirit world, or paradise, beyond, the seas will be calm. There’s a white trail on the water: might that be the route we take?

I clamber down, below and beyond the crowds. I have the far southern tip of Finisterre to myself. People have of course been here before me. Once upon a time pilgrims burnt their no-longer-needed and odiferous walking clothes here, but that practice has been banned. But not to be defeated several people have built a frame of poles and branches and strung their old unwanted clothes from it. They hang limply now. Come the next strong wind they will be shredded.

All the while the cloud is building from the north-west, as the photos show. How stormy the weather will be who is to say, but a long hot summer is slipping away.

The surf is gentle, breaking in concentric patters round untroubled rock. The clouds are wondrous, curtains of cirrus, swags of dappled white looped lightly across the sky, and the ocean almost impercetibly darkened beneath. The sky as it might be in paradise, and all the more a thing of magic because it might just disappear in an instant.

Sure enough the following morning breaks grey and damp, with the cloud down to rooftop level. It will not clear today, and rain will follow. And in England – the hottest September day on record. Cold winds slip down to the west of Ireland, leaving England marooned, cocooned and over-heated.

 

 

Finisterre – end of the known world…

Last year walking the Camino across Spain I put all thoughts of politics out of my mind. I posted a blog when I returned, entitled ‘On being a European’. I had confidence a European and international outlook would win out in the end, whatever the short-term travails. The Brexit vote hit that confidence hard, but walking the Camino Portuguese, and the passing of the weeks, has helped bring calm and perspective. And a shrug of the shoulders – can we really be so daft?

At Cabo Fisterra, Cape Finisterre, where I ventured after Santiago, I clambered down the rocky slope below the lighthouse, and looked out west, over a stretch of ocean which to the Romans would have been at the very edge of the known world – finis terrae. The ocean as the Styx, and somewhere out there would have been Charon, with his boat, ferrying souls.

High cloud patterned the sky but didn’t reduce the sun’s intensity. Mist held to the coast behind me, but not out to sea.

In medieval times, likewise, this was the end of the world, and pilgrims would continue beyond Santiago to Finisterre. In the voyage of St Brendan he sails out west from Ireland and passes over into paradise.

I’ve this fantasy of May, Davis, Fox and Johnson, sitting in a restaurant, at the end of the world (borrowing from Douglas Adams!), having a last meal before they cut ties with Europe and venture off into the unknown. The ocean is peaceful just now but the autumn and winter storms will be mighty.

On another tack, but still in Spain, there’s a quote I like from Gerald Brenan’s classic book, The Face of Spain, about Spain, but more applicable to the UK just now: ‘I do not know where we are going, but I do know this – that wherever it is we shall lose our way.’

And China…. thinking walls, not oceans…. I’ve a sense that the Emperor Shih Huang Ti’s behaviour, as recorded in Richard Flanagan’s novel, The Sound of One Hand Clapping, might just have relevance to our own times: he ‘ordered the construction of the Great Wall and the destruction of all books preceding his reign, so that history would henceforth begin with him and his wall.’

In this post-expertise age, we are in a not dissimilar place. We might just finding ourselves using a new, unknown and very friable building material, not stone, not brick – but brexit. On one side of the wall, the old Europe, and on the other, the ocean.

Messages home from the Camino Portugues

or …… Travels with a very small bear

This is the alternative blog – based on messages home to my partner, Hazel. Carlos, by the way, is a small Steiff bear she gave me before I set off on the Camino Frances last year. He sits, usually with his head out, in a small side pocket of my rucksack.

Wednesday 31st August:

Eating a very good octopus and bean stew after a stroll round the very lively streets of Porto. One girl belting out an Eric Clapton blues. Marvellous evening views of the river from the cathedral, the port houses of the likes of Cockburn and Sandeman still lining the shore. Hotel OK. I’ve bunk beds in the room as well as double bed – should I need them!!!

Thursday 1st September:

I’m sending a photo of Carlos (now on his second Camino!) taking in the view (the Atlantic, lost in the heat haze) just before we finished our walk. We (he and I!) are staying at the monastery in Vairao – beautiful location. Countryside surprisingly green, given the hot weather. Walked 17 miles in the hot sun.

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Started 10.30, after exploring Porto by daylight, especially the cathedral – I loved the cloisters. Slept well and walked well. Only problem might be a plantar fasciitis recurrence – felt sore even before of started walking. Not bad, doesn’t really hurt… Staying in the high 80s here. I think I like it! Carlos thinks Portugal is …cool!

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Friday 2nd September:

18 miles in 88 degree heat. Yes I did wear my sun hat! Shade always came to my rescue. Eucalyptus woods have a sweet smell! Two great cafes en route – they love peregrinos and make you feel like a celebrity. Barcelos is delightful – somewhere for you and I to visit when we do our northern Portugal trip!! (Did you know about that?) Tomorrow – 20 miles and no cooler – I’ll probably do 12 miles [I didn’t – I did 21] and stop off at an earlier albergue. Ponte de Lima does sound special.

There’s a spiritual quality in all this, somewhere, must remember that, and too much mega hot sun doesn’t help! Don’t worry – I will be sensible.

Saturday 3rd September:

Today probably the toughest of any Camino day – close on 21 miles in 90 degree heat. Took a longish lunch break, mega amounts of water – camels have a good plan, and did the last three hours down to Ponte de Lima in stages – 15 mins then water, then shade. Think feet OK, but they’re sore, and a blister needs watching! Wonderful rolling wooded country, maize and vines in abundance, but too little shade. Carlos complains he’s getting a tan! …Tuesday forecasting 40 degrees here – over 100F. Won’t walk after 10 – will begin at 6 maybe and make it a short day! [That at least was the plan!]

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Ponte de Lima beautiful and bridge medieval, long and narrow, for pilgrims and horses, but the whole place is touristy. Currently sitting outside after a shower (communal!) and drinking a local craft beer….

Sunday 4th September:

Got to Rubiaes about midday after five hours walking – and that is enough! Sheltering in the albergue, as is everyone, no-one daft enough to be out there walking! Wonderful walk from the Lima valley – a high pass only 1400ft but rugged and the sun already hot. They’re collecting pine resin from the trees – plastic bags attached to capture – so a sweet smell. And big views. Hot tomorrow again – aiming for the Spanish border…[News that Strictly Come Dancing has started already]… God help us all! They’d all die dancing in this heat… Planning a 6.30 start – not too early – Roman bridges don’t look special in the dark!… Flip-flops a big success. Sore left foot no longer sore! But sore spot on right foot. Such is life!

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Monday 5th September:

Having a coffee in Valenca, fortress above the Minho – view upriver takes some beating! Left at 6.10, arrived 11.30. Off to Spain in a few minutes – just 2km to Tui….

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Now well-settled in Tui. Mixed dorms but we’re spared mixed showers! Breakfast with eccentric ex-postman from Wigan and chatted to Polish guy who has his own travel magazine, takes own photos and hates smartphone cameras! Otherwise I’ve been swinging along through beautiful country, Roman bridges – it was once a Roman road, wooded paths, a few red-barked cork oaks, and singing, and happily lost in thought – walking as the good Lord meant it to be. Heat building, but OK. Tomorrow is the mega heat day – should I leave at maybe 4.30? Could be 2 hrs walking in the dark… Time now an hour ahead – funny gaining an hour going north. Mega hot out there – can it really be that tomorrow will be 6 or 7 degrees hotter still?

Tuesday 6th September:

Our international party, Polish photographer, Antonio, Czech student, Michaela, and me, walked 22 miles from Tui to Redondela, leaving at 5.40 and arriving 2.10, in 97 degree heat. Feet done in but otherwise beginning to recover, aided by beer, water, bread and cheese. We kept talking and and helped push each other along. On my own – would I have made it? Other people on the Camino today included – more Poles, a group of Spanish scouts, and a Mexican couple. No Brits save me!… [Tomorrow] heading for Pontevedra. Easy walk, I think. Assuming I can walk! Feet in rebellion!…

[Message from home: ‘No Brit would be mad enough to walk in that heat.’] Are you suggesting I’m not British?! I’m not one of your lily-livered Brexiters! Antonio called out a moment ago – ‘How is Brexit?’ (meaning me) ‘Do not call me Brexit!’ I shouted back. Such are the burdens we old-school Eurobrits have to bear!

Talking of bears, Carlos got some serious attention today – he’s feeling better about things. Brave bear – coping with the heat. And I’m doing the walking for him, of course.

Wednesday 7th September:

Arrived Pontevedra 12.45, having left at 7.40 – last person out of the albergue. Most are gone by 6, but sunrise 8.10 here, and I want to see where I’m walking! Easy day, two healthy climbs, but sun came out late and I had my favourite breakfast – fresh orange juice, croissant and café con leche. Bounced along after that. Lesson for and from today – think of nothing, just take it all in! Staying in a cheap hotel – Hotel Virgin del Camino – better than vergin’ – it’s actually on the Camino! Now off to eat and sight-see.

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Carlos’s fur trapped in zip but I think he’s OK…[‘Might Carlos like his head out of the rucksack, so he can enjoy the views…’] Carlos does have his head out of the rucksack, all the time. Only the rain would keep him in. Sometimes he stretches out a paw and waves as well!… I loved Pontevedra but wandered around too long, and my feet are very sore…

Thursday 8th September:

Arrived Caldas de Reis at 12.15 – walked non-stop from Pontevedra, not far short of 4 miles/hr pace. Too many slow Spanish walking groups and I needed to get well away from them! They talk! Beautiful gentle country, bright sun, and temperature high 60s. That makes two happy bears – Carlos tambien! Wondering whether to call him Carlito – little Carlos. Ibuprofen and blister plasters helping – feet doing better than I expected. Now enjoying bread and tapas lunch!… Amazingly I’m now halfway through this jaunt!

Friday 9th September:

Arrived Padron 12.30. Enjoying a very good menu de dia in a local restaurant! …very modern albergue – bunk beds with curtains! Big plus – they’ve done all my laundry! Shortish but beautiful walk – oak, pine, chestnut, under a deep blue sky. Chilly first thing. Bumped into Martin, who I’d met in Tui, and we did a short tour – walking up the hillside to where St James [doesn’t sound right if you’re a peregrino – has to be Santiago!] is reputed to have first preached the Christian message in what must have been about 40AD. Martin an Irish Catholic so a good companion for this! House/museum of a legendary Galician poet – Rosalia de Castro – up the road so I trekked off for a visit. Early start tomorrow – will be tight to get there in time for midday mass.

Saturday 10th September:

Photo [sent home, to Hazel, and to my son and daughter] taken a moment ago, 10.30, local time, 8 miles out from Santiago [I’m looking remarkably sprightly, all considered!] …

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Arrived to music and carnival an hour ago. A mere 16 miles this morning and I chose to explore the longer way in – being a glutton for punishment (and I knew I’d missed the mass). Once I start moving I do walk fast – all that running and marathons and the like. Wonderful place to be – on the steps above the Praza do Obradoiro. Met my Czech friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. Big shout of – Chris! Antonio around somewhere. And others I recognise – we’ve all walked a long way!

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Sunday 11th September:

Mist down low over Finisterre [I took a bus, and did feel a bit of a cheat], there’s a little overhead sun but wherever I walk I won’t see much. Maybe it will add to be mystery, and there’s a lot out there….

The mystery is now the view, on a perfect evening! The mist cleared over the last hour. This is where you would, in classical times, pass over the horizon, to the other side, to the spirit world. No-one is closer than I am at this moment. Back in the now – you’d love it here – sun, sea and waves breaking gently. And warmth….  a wonderful day, in the end. I’d set out for the cape  about 4pm and walked and scrambled and stopped and pondered and took photos till about 8.30. Magic, all a big surprise. No idea what I’ll do tomorrow. Just got back to the port (the cape is 2½km away) and I’ve a plate of salad, and a jug of wine, in front of me….

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View from Cape Finisterre

Monday 12th September:

Damp, cloud down, forecast dreadful, no point walking 17 miles to Muxia [there will be, has to be, another time!], left Finisterre on an early bus, back to Santiago, thought I’d go to midday mass, but refused admission – my rucksack too big! Must have been by a centimetre! Maybe I look dissolute. [Tonight in a cheap hotel] tomorrow back at my favourite, the Balalada. So far a bit of a damp squib of a day!… Bought a shirt, so feel less scruffy, had a snooze, and a coffee with Martin … wonderful evening mass, felt inspired. A bit of a downer of a day early on but you can’t have the ups without the downs! Tomorrow it will rain, but I will smile!

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View from my bedroom window over Santiago

Tuesday 13th September:

Sitting on the steps of the Praza do Quintana, near the Holy Door specially opened this year for Pope Francis’s Year of Mercy. But it seems to be just another entrance for the usual tourists – the message lost. Pilgrim mass in English this morning, lots of Irish, and an Irish priest officiating. We all introduced ourselves, said where we’d walked from – which was nice. Then I toured the monastery of St Martin, hard by the cathedral – full of altars and choir stalls which put San Millan to shame – but nothing quite to compare with the sculptures of Santo Domingo de los Silos. Galician (!) hamburger for lunch, with Stones tracks in the background. Sun now, after rain, but a chilly wind. Latest invasion of pilgrims has arrived – they’re everywhere! Each day they invade – proud to have been one of them. Funny to think – back home tomorrow night.

Wednesday 14th September:

Wrote a Santiago blog late on yesterday – still work in progress. But now fired up to get out and see things again! Funny being on your own – you can go anywhere, anytime you choose, yet you want to share it, and share coffees, and chat, as we did back in May [Pamplona, Roncesvalles, Castrojeriz…].

[Two big events, not mentioned in messages home – searching out the statue in the Alameda park of Rosalia de Castro, who is already my hero, and then the Museum of Sacred Art, with paintings and statues and much more on the Camino and on pilgrimages worldwide – few people there, and yet it’s one of the best museums I’ve seen anywhere.]

For cool damp weather, come to Santiago… Now queuing to board my flight…Bus to the airport took me via the last stages of the Camino Frances route into Santiago. Everyone wearing ponchos, and the rain then got harder. Lots of sun for them on the way – shame that Santiago lets them down now. But if they don’t know already – they’ll soon discover it’s one of the most remarkable places on earth!

[Carlos, sensibly, has stayed all the while inside his pocket!]

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Carlos takes a break at Pedra Furada

 

It’s Thursday 1st September. Two weeks ago as I write. I’m starting from the Catedral Se in Porto after delaying awhile, with the heat building, in the wonderful cloister. A city built on hills, with the proud river Douro beneath, big vistas, and along its banks the old port warehouses of Cockburn, Sandeman and the like.

(Amazing in the twilight also – the previous, Wednesday, evening. Porto faces west, and silhouettes against against the sky. Street music I like: one memorable trio, with the girl belting out Eric Clapton’s ‘Before you accuse me’. If I want to sing blues and sing it seriously… I’ve a long way to go!)

10am and sun already hot as I set off past the Carmelite church (the south side covered, and telling stories, in blue azulejos tiles), along the Rua da Cedofeita, which seems to contunue forever, and on through the suburbs. I haven’t gone far when I’m accosted by a stranger and invited to inspect a newly-opened albergue (Albergue Peregrinos Porto), which brings together under one roof all the best features that Oscar, the owner, has seen on his pilgrim travels. Next time I’ll stay there.

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All the buildings, almost, have azulejos tiles, not least the station, and they tell stories, and the cathedral cloisters likewise, less so the outer suburbs. After maybe 12 miles of endless roads I’m into countryside, and a few miles beyond I’ve reached Vairao: staying in a monastery, beds not bunks, and it’s oh so wonderfully peaceful. No monks in sight, and there’s a single volunteer in charge – a Brazilian guy doing a two week stint. The meditation room I’m told is two flights of stairs up. No lights on the stone stairs: I stagger up in the total dark, and flick the light switch: Buddha and cushions but no sign of anything Christian! Yet this is a monastery. As a Dutch lady said to me a day or two later, she loves it all, but compared to the Camino Frances it’s not spiritual in the same way. Being a Camino, that spirituality has to be rooted in Christianity. Churches on the route are closed too often, and I miss the pilgrim masses. And the Templars, and Cluny, never got to work down here and put money into anything like the great Romanesque temples I love on the Camino Frances.

All that said – still an amazing trail to be following. Comparisons maybe miss the point!

Friday 2nd. San Pedro de Rates, drinking water water water, and coffee, under an awning, the clock tower above, and the village square blasted white by the sun. The cafe owner (Cafe Macedo) loves pilgrims: big smile and handshake saw me on my way. Next – Dead Woman’s Peak – Alto da Mulher Morta. (Looked hard for Dead Man’s Gulch, but wrong continent.) Not enough shelter from the eucalyptus and pines as we gently climb. Pedra Furada – a megalithic disc, with a hole… stranded in a paved churchyard, but it still has mystery.

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Barcelos, commanding the river, famous for its legend of the cock which crowed just in time (the victim was already hanging) to save an innocent pilgrim’s life. Now a garish cartoon cock, and he’s everywhere. One marvellous octagonal church, ornate decoration, and another severely Romanesque, the river directly below, with a mill by the bridge. Colourful umbrellas float above the main shopping street.  My albergue was in Barcelinhos, where checking in I’m greeted by the most beautiful girl in the world: dead on my feet and glasses coated with salt and sweat I walk into and rebound from a plate glass door. Impressing women is never easy. Also hurt my head!

Saturday 3rd. Getting hotter by the day. Drink suspect water from a fuente, mild tummy upset – doesn’t help! Ponte da Tabuas, old bridge and river forms a lagoon, and someone’s swimming… Dirt tracks and cobbled roads (all minor roads are cobbled) take you through maize and vines, the vines forming a narrow screen next to the walls of cleverly laid, heavy, solid  granite stones. These are old landscapes, little changed, by the path side, but the fields are often big, and sprinklers throw their water far and wide, and are happy to dowse pilgrims.

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A roadside chapel dedicated Our Lady of the Snows. You long for snow in summer, and you don’t have far to go to find it in winter. It’s a lovely evocative name, sounds even better in Spanish: Nuestra Senora de las Nieves. A pulpit sits outside the west door: this intrigued me – was a priest from back maybe in the 18th entity the radicalising Wesley or Whitfield figure of his time ? Preaching out rather than in. There’s a bandstand opposite – what does this signify, I wonder?

One big blister by the time I limp into Ponte de Lima. Wide river with long and spectacular medieval bridge. There’s a big kayak race – why kayaks? Whatever, it’s a big event!  They know how to party here and it’s Saturday night … Supper outside with a Canadian girl and a Italian guy: she works in England at Stevenage hospital, was born in Dubai, has lived in Canada since she was three, and her parents were originally from India, and her boyfriend who she came to England to be with is – Welsh. The multinational Camino represented in one person. She’s walking from Braga to Santiago, another variation on the Camino theme.

Not quite so many walk all the way from Lisbon. Places like Coimbra sound magical, and there’s Fatima, a pilgrimage in its own right. Someone, for much of the Portugues route, and beyond, has happily drawn blue arrows facing the opposite way, the Fatima way, wherever there’s a yellow Camino arrow.

Sunday 4th. Sleep not too easy. Street noise right below the dorm window!  And everyone in my dorm is up at 5.30 – start early and beat the heat. No way can I sleep – so I’m off early to. By 10am climbing sharply, a rugged path to 1400 feet, big views back to the Lima valley, two evocative stone crosses with memorials and mementos, and pine trees with plastic bags attached: they’re collecting resin, and it’s thick and crystalline, and the smell is sweet.

Rubiaes, another municipal albergue. Down to basics – they pride themsleves on how minimalist they can get – as long as there are showers and bunks, they’re right, nothing else matters! And it’s 5 euros! Most of us there by 1pm. Late arrivals sleep on mattresses in corridors. Not much to do, the heat it seems exhausts more by doing nothing than by moving through it, save shower and wash clothes and read and talk and sleep and eat. This is not a metropolis.

Monday 5th. Checked out a Roman bridge in the half-light, we’re following for much of the way the Roman Antonine Itinerary XIX. A major route from the 1st to the 5th century. There are six-foot and bulky inscribed Roman milestones along the way. I love tracing out Caesar or Augustus with my finger. I reach the Spanish border by 11 – Valenca, Portuguese fortress, on a massive mscale, this is serious border country! Fortifications inspired by Louis XIV’s remarkable engineer, Vauban: they are on a vast multi-levelled scale. The Portuguese did not, and rightly did not, trust the Spanish!

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Views up and own the Minho river take your breath away. But most pilgrims head straight on, and tourists go for the nicknacks. Stop halfway across the bridge, straddling the border. River impressive – Ben (my son) and I went kayaking just below here ten years ago! Good memories.

  

Then on to Tui, Spanish border town, solid granite, cathedral a fortress, and cloisters the best place for cool! Carved portico inspired by the Portica da Gloria in Santiago. Dinner with Martin from Dublin (a retired engineer, he has a Camino tattoo on his upper arm) and Ken from Wigan. Broad Lancashire stalks the Camino..

Tuesday 6th. Big view from albergue up the Minho, first semblance of a breeze at 2, we’re all away by 5.30, 100 degree heat forecast. Stars bright, Orion already high, and Sirius just touching the horizon – winter stars, out of place in all this heat. We take the green route round Porrino, avoid the factories – three of us, a Polish photo-journalist, a Czech girl student, and a Brit. Pushing each other. After 22 miles we make Redondela, it’s getting close to 2pm. We get the last places in the dorm. Getting used again to mixed dorms – showers and loos separate. Male showers communal – back to school days! We’re close to a marvellous coastline, the Ria de Vigo: I follow the river and after a few 100 yards it opens out into a tidal creak – water flashing brilliant and enticing in the mega-sun.

Most churches closed but their Romanesque bell towers stand out against the blue skies. I always detour to take a look, while others walk on. One way to find peace. I love the cruceiros, wayside crosses which can sometimes pack the full biblical cycle from the Fall to crucifixion into tableaux carved out of the granite. Everything, all the way from Porto, is granite. Not least the walls, and the narrow posts which would once upon a time have supported the vines that line the field edges.

 

Wednesday 6th. A shorter walk, to Pontevedra, via the river route – alder and birch mixed in, we’re almost into English greenery. But it’s hotter, and the shade deeper. Santa Maria a remarkable Renaissance basilica – the life of Mary climbs and fills the western front. Sanctuaria de Peregrino  a perfect 18th century rotunda – ground plan shell-shaped. I take a breather – take a cheap hotel! The Asador Virgin del Camino, my oft-related joke being that it’s better than vergin’, it’s actually on the Camino.

St James is more and more entwined with the pilgrim route, the closer we get to Santiago.

Thursday 7th. But first Caldas de Reis. Chatted to Christine from Canada on the way, she’s running a leadership course near Lisbon, and all participants have to walk the last stages of the Camino Portugues. Young people, working in not-for-profit fields, from all over the world.

Caldas – thermal waters, baths and springs since Roman times. Bathed my feet: water seriously hot. Got a disapproving look from a local – no longer a cool thing to do! Ice cream in the Xardin Botanicas – that was a better highpoint. Too much time to kill. Down by the bridge over the rio Umia there’s a wonderful tree-shaded restaurant: if only I’d known!

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Friday 8th. Padron – where St James landed, or at least where he is supposed to have landed. Let’s assume he did! Much more fun that way. The stone to which he tied his boat lies beneath the altar in the Igrexa de Santiago. The hill above the Carmelite convent, the Santiaguino, is where he preached. After his execution his disciples returned to Padron with his body. I bumped into my friend, Martin, from Tui and we walked and talked the hill and its story together. Helps that he’s Irish! Below, in front of the Carmelite monastery there’s a vast platform – a viewing platform, for taking in the landscape, and not half bad for preaching either.

My albergue, all rather prosaic by comparison, is new, compact, and pristine clean – and the individual bunks had curtains. Also memorable: the menu de dia in a local restaurant, I’m now into main meals at lunchtime – do as the locals do. Not forgetting my evening pimientos de Padron, the local speciality.

Saturday 9th. James’s disciples buried his body in Santiago. What route would they have taken? My trail ran past the ancient Iria Flavia basilica, sacked by Almanzor in 997AD (he snatched the Santiago cathedral bells in the same raid), through run-down villages , through eucalyptus and pine, following a delightful wooded river valley, past the oldest of all the cruceiros, 14th century (I had my photo taken there, appropriate for someone who loves all the old stuff, the churches, the religion, however unfashionable that might be), then across the valley, through villages …then one river left to cross, just to tease, and a curiously rural valley for somewhere so close to the centre, another bridge, and finally tired legs into the old town, where it’s Saturday, and I seek out the traditional Portuguese gate of entry, and the different areas of the city are progressing in fancy dress and marching bands, drums and pipes, into the Praza do Obradoiro.

Sadly, as last year, the west front and the Porta da Gloria are covered in scaffolding, and that means I will have to come again! It’s Saturday, as last year when I arrived, but where last time it was politics this time it’s carnival in the streets, colourful costumes,  Galician pipers, big drums echoing down the ruas, captioned horses barely under control, high-steping middle-aged ladies looking gorgeous and showing off their legs, all the Santiago communities dressed up for a big day, and the rain holds off – just. Everyone heading for the Praza do Obradeiro. I watch from the steps with my friend, Michaela, from our big walk from Tui. By mid-afternoon it’s wet.

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Behind me is the Portico da Gloria. Under wraps. Inside the cathedral, at the back, there’s plastic sheeting, and you can get down on your knees and peer underneath, and two girls are sitting on stools, under arc lights, chipping away the grime of ages. I think it’s the statue of Master Mateo himself one of the girls is working on. I’d love to have touched heads with him, as pilgrims used to do, in the hope that a little 12th century genius might transfer to the 21st. Outside, on the great western facade, it’s slow work there too, and there’s a lift that trundles incongruously up and down. Just how did they get their building material, and their craftsmen, up there in past times?

Santiago’s history and tradition is now embalmed – explained and served up for pilgrims and tourists. Pick almost any period in its past and the story would have been radically different. In the 13th century destruction followed on a riot in the Quintana, and rebuilding followed. 15th century, another riot, the cloister damaged and rebuilt. I’ve been unable to find the reasons or the consequences, but stories of riots do bring us, as they brought the city centuries ago, back done to earth. What were the conditions the masons and journeymen in the 10th, 13th, 17th and all centuries inbetween worked under? Master Mateo and Archbishop Xelmirez may have been hard taskmasters.

Inside the cathedral it’s evening, and the Pilgrim Mass draws to a close. The great organ strikes up, the botafumeiro is released and pours out holy smoke as it swings in its great arc across the transept. Not I’d have thought the best way to fumigate pilgrims: it may not take our sweat but it does take our breath away. There’s a pilgrim mass in English every morning, in the Chapel of Our Lady of Sorrows. The Irish well represented, including five men in orange T-shirts who are all cancer survivors, and cycling together. The priest is a jovial, over-weight 69-year-old Irishman. I too am 69. We all introduce ourselves, a marvellous diversity, though quite a few like me have come from Porto rather than St Jean. Along one wall a mitred medieval bishop rests, on his side, head on one hand and his other, upper hand clasping the good book to his thigh. He seemed so content, in the sleep of the Lord, death could not touch him.

So many sculptures, and I love getting in close and taking in their expressions. Adjacent to the Porto Sacra are prophets and fathers of the church, and bishops and popes, not psychological portraits, but the sculptors had their fun, making each one different. Calm faces, cool faces, classical faces, and some at the opposite bizarre, plum ugly end of the spectrum. All those empty stares. And noses don’t survive the centuries well.

For paintings and sculptures if you want to see them not with a craned neck but close at hand, then check out the Museum of Sacred Art, a modern miracle of a museum housed within the old Mosteiro de San Paio on the Praza da Quintana. There’s the tabernacle in which St James is supposed to have been originally buried, and statues and paintings of Santiago and pilgrims from all over Europe. What did they wear in their feet, I wondered. Mostly sandals it seems, though one pilgrim had his feet wrapped round in what I assume was leather – almost a shoe!

Pilgrimage is a broad concept. On a path, with a purpose. Once upon a time when we all walked we were all pilgrims… Jesus on the road to Emmaus was joined by two disciples who didn’t recognise him at first, and there’s a wonderful painting, 16th century, almost my favourite item in the whole of Santiago, of the three of them ambling along, talking animatedly beneath towering woodland. Small figures, and a big theme. Three modern pilgrims engaged in animated conversation wouldn’t look that different!

      

Jesus – lest we forget, the Pope decreed that that this should be a Holy Year of Mercy, and the Holy Door, the Porto Sacra, on to Quintana is open this year, as it would otherwise be only in those Holy Years when the saint’s day falls on a Sunday. But no mention of this in the cathedral: I saw a pile of unused leaflets, that’s all. And tourists were using the Holy Door as just another entrance. If you take confession, and mass, and are free not from sin as such but a disposition toward sin (wonderful semantics!) then you qualify for a plenary indulgence. I’m not a Catholic, and Luther railed against indulgences, but I love the idea of a Year of Mercy, and it’s a shame to see that’s it’s not impacting on the lives of tourists, and pilgrims, a little more.

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But Santiago works its magic anyway. My hotel, the Balalada, on the Rua da Xelmirez  (Xelmirez was archbishop in the early 12th century, and the driving force behind the building of the  cathedral), hides out in an old house, and my bedroom window looks over roofs and trees to one of the cathedral towers. There’s a bar four floors below my bedroom and on Saturday nights the party doesn’t stop until 5am, but if you’ve just walked 150, or 500 miles, you’re likely to sleep anyway, and next year – you can drink into the small hours, outside, in the cool of night.

Staying over two extra days I wandered the streets, explored churches, gazed up at high statues, spent time in cafes and restaurants and shops, but nothing quite beat my discovery of the Alamada park, which stretches away toward the sunset to the west of the city, endless green open spaces, trees and walkways, the church of Santa Susana in the middle, a perfect place on a hot day. If lived in the city I’d be retiring there to walk or to run, or with my book, or simply to find peace. And on the far side there’s a wonderful statue of Rosalia de Castro, Galician poet and national hero, whose house I visited in Padron. She has strong features, and a wise face, and I like her. No military celebration, or or pride or pomp, just humility, and wisdom, set on high, so we can look up to her. Below, carved into stone, are the titles of her books – poetry and prose. She had a melancholy cast of mind, there’s a sense of loss, and maybe that’s woven into the Galician sensibility. Not for me to say. But in this place of triumph for pilgrims I’ll end with a quote that’s just a little bit sad, but nonetheless evocative. Santiago is also a place for reflection.

I can only tell you that my songs/ rise in confusion from my soul/ like a sound from deep oak groves/ at daybreak,/ a sound which may be/ the wind’s tease,/ or the flower’s kiss,/ or the simple, but mysterious harmonies/ which, lost in this sad world,/ seek a way to heaven.