How to combat the post-Camino blues…

My friend Sarah from the Camino put up a request on her Facebook page. As follows –

“….Do you remember those feelings of loss or low points when you got home from the Camino? …. What were your one or two tips or strategies for beating the Post-Camino blues?…”

I replied with more than one or two – Sarah’s question made me think!

Follow the rising and the setting of the sun and moon, and the passage of the day. They’re there for us now as they were on the Camino – Find quiet in all the quiet places, and the noisy places too – Give yourself space, and imagine, re-imagine – Call to mind the landscapes and your friends, and how wonderfully international it all is, important when there’s so much talk everywhere about closing borders – And keep walking: the Camino is magic, but there are wonderful walks within reach of all (I hope so anyway) of us – And sing as you walk: the songs you sang, and maybe even the hymns 

(I loved singing in the early morning, before the sun rose, and I was on my own, no-one in sight behind or ahead. ‘The King of Glory passes on his way,’ is a line from one favourite hymn – I just liked the idea of God walking – God walking with me. We think of God as sedentary. I prefer a peripatetic God!)

And how does all that leave me feeling?! Time for a local walk, the Surrey hills – corners of wilderness within sight, from Leith Hill, of big-city London. Time for a bigger walk – return to the Cornish coast path, or get back to the Lake District, and Helvellyn, and Scafell.

And… yes, time for a BIG walk – get back on the Camino – the Camino Portugues will take me from Porto to Santiago later this year – j’espere! And then on to Finisterre, that final three of four days, which will take me to the ocean.

For which, see my next post…

Camino day by day

Text messages home (just a little edited!) Wednesday 30 September –  Tuesday 26 October 2015

[St Jean Pied de Port – Logrono walked 19th-27th June]

30 Sept   Arrived safely (in Logrono), hotel fine but bed v short…. Weather forecast going downhill – Fri and Sun don’t look good. Earlier today in Bilbao – 25 degrees at 8pm! Still summer – just!

1 Oct   Wonderful day for walking but a groin strain hasn’t helped – and it’s been a long long day. But the sun has shone brilliantly all day, and the wind blowing an almost gale. Friendly folk but no more than a few pathway chats. And the hostel (Najera) – all others full – crammed with beds and people! So a mixed day – and there’s rain to come tomorrow. Might just snug up in the next town in a hotel! BUT I’m on my way – and that’s what matters!

2 Oct   Off at 7.45 arrived Santo Domingo de la Calzada 12.15, bright start, shower just after I arrived. Time now to recover! My bocadillo de jamon and cerveza have just arrived. Better hostel – last night 90 crammed in one room!

Carlos [small teddy bear, gift from Hazel] hid, like me he didn’t like the snoring both sides of me… Daytime he’s there peeking out – I see you’ve got a hitchhiker one guy said….

3 Oct   Lovely sunrise this morning above Santo Domingo. Stomped along well all morning, at Belorado by 12.15, been chilling out, lunching, talking, writing … Only problem is – left my adaptor behind in the dormitory gloom this morning –  should have enough charge to see me through to shops in Burgos, we’ll see!

4 Oct  Bit of a miz day! Crosswinds and rain and we’re up at 3000 ft. In the oak forests it’s sheltered and rather lovely but in the open it’s a bit wildcats poncho v useful.

… ‘wildcats’? …. should read ‘wild and’! Carlos sought shelter in his rucksack pocket all day. San Juan de Ortega bleak so walked on to Ages, which is a little less bleak but nowt to do. I’m walking well, so that’s good. Tomorrow Burgos, and will be warmer! Glad I missed the rugby! [England beaten by Australia]

5 Oct   Arrived in Burgos about 1pm, wet bedraggled and windswept, as was everyone else! Now in search of a USB lead for my phone …

6 Oct   All the way to Hontanas today, with a detour to see a monastery, about 21 miles, much of it on the high meseta, up to 3000ft. Strong headwind but great when the sun took over late morning. In fact a brilliant day! Hontanas a lovely village, and a great little albergue. Supper at 7!

7 Oct  18 miles, something like that. Feet said – no further! Now in Boadilla – think that’s it! – texting in the sun cos it’s too cold everywhere else. There is a lounge with a heater… But this is Spain!! Walking over the meseta amazing, big landscapes and big skies, mostly sunny. Maybe warmer weather is on its way… Great hostel, inc garden, cafe, except for bunks which are muy basico!

8  Oct   Wonderful day walking in big landscapes, and several wonderful churches. But cold out of the sun – reminded me of the high Andes! Now in Carrion, which has churches but no albergues with their own cafe/restaurants, and they’ve been great ways of meeting people. Now done nine days (eight walking, but I’ve gained a day on my schedule), almost 1/2 way if you count my days in June!

9 Oct   Hard walking across endless hedgeless fields, big horizons, mountains far to the north. Bitterly cold but moon, Venus and Jupiter beautiful in the predawn sky… Got here at 1.30  after lunch – bocadillo de chorizo in a nearby village. ‘Here’ is Terradillos de los Templarios, halfway point on the Camino Frances! A black cat on the Camino today, walking the wrong way – all it wanted was attention, not one of your scraggy anthropophobic (good word that) cats!

…. Anthropophobic … Spellcheck having fun! Sitting here now with Swedish, German and English friends … Sun brilliant, but weather will be going downhill a bit tomorrow. Not following the news,

so wonderfully out of touch!  Good conversation over supper – some inspiring people on the Camino.

10 Oct …. Phone call home [from Calzadilla de los Hermanillos, municipal albergue]

11 Oct   Big contrast today, after lovely friendly communal meal in Calzadilla last night. Wet morning, walking about 16 miles across rough paths in the middle of nowhere, friends Tim and Sarah keeping me company. Crazy early lunch at the Bar Elvis in Reliegos, blues and R&B and bocadillos. Lovely albergue, small, playing Enya when we arrived… but town (Mansilla de las Mullas) in Sunday shutdown, and weather cold damp and dreary. So miserable afternoon – after I’d got my clothes washed. Hard even to find a decent place for a beer! Tomorrow Leon, which should be wonderful. Will probably take an extra day. Weather wet tomorrow am, maybe Tues too, but forecast looking v good after that.

12 Oct   Chilly in Leon. Wet overnight, rain held off walking here – only just. Albergue crams in lots of people but as one of the first to arrive have a bottom bunk. Lovely people running last night’s albergue – got hugs from husband and wife on leaving! Leon cathedral wonderful – finest stained glass I’ve seen anywhere in the world – every wall has vast windows, full of colour, and three rose windows… Was planning to stay tomorrow in Leon, but weather won’t be good so think I’ll move on. Will be on my own for the first time in four days – looking forward to it! Think you have more sun and warmth than I have…

13 Oct.  3.30 and just settling in to my own room – ! – in Hospital de Orbiga. At least 24 miles by the country route from Leon, and I think I’m ahead of almost everyone else. So could choose. 15 euros. Rain? Stunning day … 5 degrees when I set off about 7.15, now mid 60s and a deep blue sky!

Hard to get warm here, and only one bar open! Also much much quieter than Leon. Main feature the wonderful bridge. Feet aching but only a short distance tomorrow, and the sun will be shining! I didn’t stay in the Parador in Leon – thought about it, but v expensive. Looked amazing in the half-light this morning! For another time?? Could you send your electric blanket over?

14 Oct   Shorter walk to Astorga, some beautiful woodland en route and the city on its hilltop, a bit like Orvieto, is impressive. Weather sunny – and chilly. But a little lonely – friends have all moved on or gone back home – so Achilles’ tendons permitting I’ll move on tomorrow rather than stay here. Still an amazing adventure! Up to 5000ft the day after tomorrow… Now more than two weeks since leaving home.

15 Oct   Will phone after Vespers at 7.  Wonderful day! [Rabanal. Sated at the Albergue Gaucelmo, run by Confraternity of St James, and v English!]

16 Oct  Wonderful walking and up to Cruz de Ferro with my friends, but since then on my own. I go faster! Much of the walk at 5000ft but now down at 2000ft and warming up – but still autumnal. Will speed up if I can [cover three days in two] – loving it but think I want to get to Santiago a bit more quickly. Rabanal yesterday was a special place. Big country! [Today Molinaseca, another municipal albergue, but beds not bunks!]

17 Oct  Wonderful day. Started over an hour before sunrise, with head torch on. Checked out a still functioning Roman cistern at 8am, in the dark! Ponferrado – light rain, by Cacabelos sun was coming out, and afternoon was walking through vineyards, hills all around, mountains beyond, blue sky and warm sun. I loved it – happiest moments yet. Bounce in my step! 20 miles…. Hope tomorrow can compare. Now to explore Villafranca del Bierzo. [Family-run Albergue Leo, best yet.] Have maybe an hour. We must try the Bierzo wines.

18 Oct  Strange but good (I think!) day. Took mountain route out of Villafranca, went slightly wrong (Pradela if it’s on your map), then all the way to O’Cebreiro. BUT drizzle turned to light rain and I’m over 4000ft and in cloud and there’s a cold wind, and O’C is a primitive stone village. So I took a room, bit basic [damp sheets], but v hot shower, and now 5pm and into my menu peregrino. Forecast tomorrow bad, but after that looking good. Max 7 maybe 6 days to Santiago. Over 20 miles and prob 4000 ft of climbing today. My feet amazingly are holding out well! … Vast plate of meat has arrived. Now for the vino.

19 Oct   I’ve just arrived in Triacastela, after walking in steady rain for 5 1/2hrs. I’m very wet but will survive!

20 Oct   A complete change, glorious weather, sky so blue could have been in the high Alps. Took a tour of the great monastery at Samos, and still walked 18 miles or so – now about 3 miles beyond Sarria. Met up with friends en route but no-one’s made it to Barbadelo, where I am now. A swimming pool here – with a cold wind no surprise that no-one’s in there swimming.

21 Oct   I’ve slowed right down in the last hour – bruised heel. Will have to see how I go. Now Portomarin, heading for Palas de Rei – but may not get there tonight! [Stayed in the Casa Molar albergue in Ventas de Naron]

22 Oct   Heel (where it joins the sole) swollen this morning, got out of bed and couldn’t walk. Was thinking – crisis, taxis etc. But we Colliers don’t give in. Started walking with a limp – and 16 miles later I was going quite well, arriving in Melide. Went much more slowly esp this morning, and enjoyed it. Day made in heaven, that helps. And God would have thought he’d done pretty well with the Galician countryside as well. Two days out from Santiago. Only question – how will the foot be in the morning? Have I pushed it too much today?

Meal tonight polpo – octopus – local speciality! Walked back with a slow limp. Yet, somehow, I will be walking tomorrow!

23 Oct  For a bear with a sore foot today was ridiculous – walked all the way from Melide to Pedrouzo, over 20 miles. Didn’t want to walk so far but in the end no choice. Only 12 or so miles tomorrow. But after 4 days of wonderful weather looks like tomorrow may be damp even wet. But will be special to reach Santiago. Tonight not in an albergue but a small ‘hostel’, v cheap – but my own room.

24 Oct  ARRIVED IN SANTIAGO !!! just over 2 hrs ago, missed the midday pilgrim mass by a few minutes – I’d been walking over 4 hrs, but hotel is snug and v close to cathedral. I have my certificate. Big anti-gov political rally going in plaza in front of cathedral when I arrived, so not quite the right mood! Will return later and reflect. 400 miles since 1 Oct, av 17 a day… But in 4 words WOW I MADE IT!

25 Oct   Wonderful day here, hobbling at first but kept bumping into friends from way back on the trail all day, hugs and goodbyes. I’ve been a lone walker – and yet I’ve made great friends! Warm sunny day – drizzling now. Midday mass was wonderful, with the great botafumeiro censor swinging its vast arc at the end of the service. Originally intended to fumigate pilgrims – I’m ok but not sure about all my clothes. BUT I’m a-comin’ home tomorrow, all being well flight into Heathrow early evening. Almost four weeks away….




The Camino and the poem

I didn’t carry a book of poems with me on the Camino. I thought about it. But I wanted all my responses to be my own, and not guided by the insights of others. Now I’m back, and I’m reading, and writing.

Antonio Machado has a reminder of another way of walking:

I have walked many roads, / I have found many paths; / I have sailed a hundred seas, / and landed on a hundred shores…

And in all places I have seen/ people who dance and play, / when they can, and work / their four spans of land.

Never when they come to a place / do they ask where to go. / When they make their way, they ride / on the back of an old mule / and do not know to hurry /not even on the days of the fiesta…

We’re privileged to walk the Camino. Countless others have travelled before us, and they’ve travelled wisely, and slowly. (Walking slowly is something I’m not always too good at, as my Camino friends will testify!)

Robert Frost’s The Road Not Taken reminds us of chance and serendipity:

…Two roads diverged in a wood, and I – / I took the road less travelled by, / And that has made all the difference.

There is of course only one route westward (and a few diversions) on the Camino. But is there? Depending on when you start, the month, the season, the weather, the clouds, the shadows – there are a thousand routes.

Rudyard Kipling’s The Way through the Woods catches the sense of those who’ve travelled a path before us:

…Yet, if you enter the woods / Of a summer evening late… / You will hear the beat of a horse’s feet, / and the swish of a skirt in the dew / Steadily cantering through / The misty solitudes

This is a corner of England, not Spain, and it’s woodland, and the path is no more… but the resonance is still there. And that sense of impermanence: the Camino hasn’t always been there, and won’t always be there.  We are our own moment in time.

I was always conscious on the Camino of those who’d walked before me, maybe a thousand years ago. St James never walked the way, but as Santiago Matamoros he led the Spanish army against the Moors, so legend would have it. He could also be my companion, and to see what I mean by that check out another post, with two poems of my own, under the heading ‘Shadow – four poems’.

On another tack, there’s Pablo Neruda:

And that’s why I have to go back / to so many places in the future / there to find myself… / with no task but to live / with no family but the road

I love Neruda but there’s a Rilke poem I can’t find that captures the idea of the future, of a light ahead we never reach, even  better.

[Rilke poem, The Walk, now found, thanks to my friend, Sarah, my companion for three days on the Camino.

Already my eyes touch the sunlit hill/Far ahead of the road I have just begun/ So we are grasped by what we cannot grasp;/We see its light even from a distance –

And it changes us, even if we do not reach it,/Into something else, which, hardly sensing it, we already are;/A gesture seems to wave us on, answering our own wave,/But what we feel is the wind in our faces.]

Finally, another, and famous, Machado:

Walker, your footsteps / are the road, and nothing more.

Walker, there is no road, / the road is made by walking.

Walking you make the road, / and turning to look behind / you see the path you never / again will step upon.

Walker there is no road, / only foam trails on the seas.

We experience highs and the lows, joys and sorrows, we walk in company and alone, we laugh and we keep silence. There’s a poem somewhere which captures every mood.

Or almost does, which is why we keep writing our own poems. No-one quite captures a moment or a mood as we do ourselves. We only need the pen, and the silence.


Why walk the Camino?

Walking for five minutes or five hours, there’s one recurring question we ask each other. Why are you walking the Camino? Usually in life, maybe standing by a bus stop, there aren’t any easy ways into conversation, and most of us, en route to work maybe, are too lost in our own thoughts or anxieties to want to talk. But on the Camino you’re a big exception if you don’t acknowledge someone with at least a ‘buen camino’, and you may well walk together a little while, and that question will always come up, in one guise or another.

And the answer? Spiritual, religious or personal? Maybe it’s simply the challenge, a bit like walking the three peaks in the UK (Ben Nevis, Scafell Pike and Snowdon) for the hell of it, often against the clock.

The spiritual and religious blur into one another. This blog is inspired by Zen, but also firmly rooted in the Christian tradition. Walking the Camino with an open mind, and finding peace and serenity, and rejoicing each morning as the dawn turns into day – that experience is the same, whether your Christian, or Buddhist, or simply ‘spiritual’, in the best sense of that all-encompassing term.

When asked why I was walking the Camino I’d say my reasons were personal, spiritual – and historical. I love the tradition, that sense of others walking before me for the last 1200 years.

In medieval times you’d be looking for the church (the Catholic church) to grant you absolution from your sins, and the pilgrimage to Santiago was a uniquely powerful way of achieving that. The journey mattered as much as the destination, as a pathway to merit. You couldn’t take a plane to Santiago, or walk the last five days from Sarria, and receive a certificate, as you can now. Wonderful churches, on a scale which would have left pilgrims agog with wonder, grew up along the route, and the hospitals, hostelries, provided care and shelter. This was the Christian gospel in action, in a marvellous way, and even if our faith is not as theirs was, we can pick up on something of their experience, and be inspired by it.

In the movie The Way James Nesbitt plays Jack, an Irish travel writer who, reacting against his upbringing, refuses to enter churches, but come Santiago, he’s there, in the cathedral. Religion as it should be is both celebration and sanctuary, and the pure Romanesque of churches at Torres del Rio, Villalcazar and Fromista, to quote just three examples, reminds us of that. Maybe it influenced Jack (OK, I know he’s fictional!) as it influenced me.

Walking over 500 miles you find your prejudices challenged. All your petty grumbles and bigotries in time come to seem rather absurd. So too with the church, and I’m thinking of all denominations. Too often in ordinary life it mirrors our own human failings, even encourages them. On the Camino it rises above them in a very literal sense – the churches, the great cathedrals, and a path a millennium old, often climbing up ahead of us, as it does onto the meseta, beyond Burgos.

For me, Santiago, Jesus, the Virgin Mary, they’d been companions and support and inspirations for pilgrims a thousand years ago, and they were for me this October. I’m not suggesting they had a literal presence for me. But I walked with an open mind, and set myself to connect with how pilgrims from another very different age must have experienced the Camino.

An open mind requires stillness and, walking in the pre-dawn with the crescent moon behind and stars ahead, you are walking into the stillness, and it takes you over.

‘Be still, and know that I am God.’