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.

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.


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.


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!


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.


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.


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.



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 – all about symbols

The Camino runs in, pretty much, a straight line, but I love the way it weaves itself into your life, with reminders here and there of that extraordinary heritage into which I tapped last autumn.

We stopped in Ludlow ten days ago, and visited the wonderful parish church, which has held on to its medieval heritage better than most. A palmer was someone who’d completed the pilgrimage to Jerusalem, and the palm was his symbol. Ludlow’s Palmers’ Guild was formed in 1284 and with wide commercial interests across the area they became very wealthy – and they put that wealth into the church.

But, curiously, I noted that another symbol of pilgrimage, which appears more than once, is the shell, rather than the palm.

The palm had other symbolic meanings, not least triumph and victory. The shell, very much the symbol of the Santiago pilgrimage, had become a symbol for all pilgrimages.

Once you’ve walked the Camino and knowing how many routes cross-cross Europe you’re always on the look out for the shell symbols. It’s there even in biblical representations of St James with no pilgrimage associations – his supposed burial place wasn’t discovered until eight centuries after his death.

I found one in an unlikely place last week, on a muddy track, just off Offa’s Dyke. It was – a large shell-shaped fungus, of guaranteed impermanence, and a clear case of the symbol being in the eye of the beholder.

Camino reminders don’t only come fungus-shaped.

The chancel of Leonard Stanley church near Stroud has a carved capital depicting Mary anointing the feet of Christ, his hand raised in blessing. There’s a wooden head of Christ at South Cerney, a little further east into the Cotswolds, that’s comparable, and it’s thought likely this was brought back by a pilgrim to Compostela in the mid 12th century. The way the beard curls apparently gives the clue: I love that kind of detail. A curling beard another symbol? (Acknowledgements to David Verey’s Cotswold Churches for this information.)

And finally, guess what I’m cooking for supper tonight – scallops, with bacon, and it’s clear from one or two looks in my direction that it’s time I headed for the kitchen…

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….




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.’