John Knight completed his first pilgrimage
a few years back now. But as he is
publishing his new book soon ,telling of his
experiences of pilgrimage, I thought that a
look at his first diary would be a good opener.
CAMINO DE SANTIAGO DE COMPOSTELA
12TH May –28th May 2007
Saturday 12th May
We met at St Mary’s, Far Cotton, Northampton on Saturday evening, 12th May, for a special Eucharist and Commissioning Service for ‘the twelve Peregrinos’ (Pilgrims) by Bishop Frank. This was followed by a Paella Supper cooked by Ian Holdsworth, Vicar and group Leader, shared together with wives or husbands who were not coming with the group. After the latter left, most of us found places to sleep for what was left of the night in the Vicarage!
Sunday 13th May
Our alarms went off at 4am on Sunday morning, followed by a quick breakfast before boarding our Minibus at 5am for Stansted Airport. Our party was made up of Ian & Liz, Matthew, David, Edward, Susan, April, Linda, Jenny and John, Richard and myself. I was the oldest at 71, the youngest in his twenties, and the remainder in their 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s. We were very fortunate to catch our plane. Ten miles from the Airport a car crashed into the central reservation a mile or so ahead of us. We were held up for five minutes before we were able to filter past the wreckage and the two people lying very seriously injured on the roadside. By chance we had just passed an ambulance, and it was able to attend to the accident almost immediately. A short while later the police and fire engines arrived and the whole south-bound M11 Motorway was sealed off! If we hadn’t been so close to the scene, but further back, we would have missed our flight!
We had a two-hour flight with Ryan Air to Vallidolid in Northern Spain, then caught a bus (8 Euros for a three hour ride including reserved seats!) to Leon where we arrived late in the afternoon. Then followed our first ‘walk’ in gentle drizzle [signs of things to come?] to our Albergue for the night – part of a Catholic Nunnery.
In Spain, Albergues are the basic pilgrim ‘overnight stops’ – and much more austere than ‘hostals’, or habitaceones (rooms over bars/restaurants/cafes), or 1* hotels. Albergue prices vary from a donation (some suggested 3 Euros) for some Municipal facilities, to a fee of between 3 and 8 Euros a night. Usually this supplied double bunk-type beds with mattress, showers (some only cold water), and toilets. Only a few, very few, supplied a blanket and pillow. Usually, to maximise sleeping accommodation, double bunk beds were put together in pairs – so one always had a very near neighbour alongside – who could be male or female. Snoring levels in some dormitories was awesome! House rules included a lock in time of about 10.30 pm – with lights out! Some Albergues provided an in-house Pilgrim Menu (7 or 8 Euros) for the evening meal, and a few also provided, at a small additional cost, a makeshift breakfast in the morning…. If no meals were provided, then there were always bars or restaurants or hotels in the neighbourhood – most of which offered a Pilgrim Menu (three courses with wine and bottled water included) for less than 12 Euros. Almost without exception, we were overwhelmed with both the quantity and quality of the meals we were served. Strangely, although we saw vegetables being grown almost everywhere, they were rarely served with meals – apart from potatoes! Most times – speaking for myself - one course and the pudding would have been more than sufficient. All salad, fish, chicken and pasta-type dishes were superb. Veal and Pork were the most common red meats – always very tender, and usually served with chips.
After finding beds for the night, we left our bags behind and went to see Leon Cathedral – with the most amazing array of Stained Glass Windows. The Rose Window at the West end, with the sun going down behind it, was quite spectacular, added to which was an unusual and totally unexpected mirror image of it on the massive glass doors leading into the Choir.
We then went looking for our evening meal and were led, by Ian, by a rather circuitous route to a pub he remembered from a previous visit. Our hostess took us to an Upper Room, which was just large enough to seat the 12 of us!! Literally! The girls bringing our food came to the door, and plates were then passed over our heads and down the table. Very cosy, with lots and lots of laughter.
When the bread and wine were placed on the table, we asked for God’s blessing on them as at the Last Supper, as well as on our meal, on each other and our forthcoming pilgrimage together – a custom we were to continue each night a group of us gathered for supper. This evening we had the first of our Pilgrim Menus - a three-course meal served with wine and bottled water for roughly 10 Euros each.
We finished our meal just in time to get back to the Albergue before lock up time. Some attended the closing service of the day in the Monastery Chapel, and a few felt I had made the right choice by going straight to bed!
Monday, 14th May
At 6.30am the next morning we all gathered outside the Albergue fully kitted out, and had a prayer together before setting out on our Camino journey – 325kms to Santiago de Compostela. (Half way through the day, we passed a sign…333 kms to go!) But for this first day, it was a long hard haul both through, and out of, the City of Leon to head westwards along the Camino trail. Scenery-wise, it was the least inspiring of the whole trip, but it got all our muscles working as we covered about 36kms that first day. During that first day we met at least six people who had started their journey three weeks and more before us. A number, including a young 19 year old girl, had started three weeks before at Roncesvalles – the other side of the Pyrenees in Southern France. One elderly Canadian couple had started over five weeks before from further north in France! Our journey seemed lightweight in comparison, and put things in perspective almost before we had got going. By mid afternoon we stopped at Vilandangos Del Paramo because Linda was feeling quite ill – and so gave her time for tablets to work. So it was quite late in the afternoon when it was decided we would continue on after all, and do the final 7 kms to Hospital de Orbigo – a quite beautiful old town alongside a river, with an amazing footbridge spanning the wide river leading us into the town. We all arrived more dead than alive, only to find one Albergue full, and a second only had three spaces left. (They found a few more when pressure was placed on them later). So some of us then walked (or rather staggered somewhat painfully) quite some distance to see if we could get the Municipal Albergue opened – but the person with the key could not be found. Four of us eventually had to ‘make-do’ (!!) with putting up in the last two rooms in the local hotel at 30 Euros each!!!! A number of others, arriving after our party of 12, had to get taxis to take them on to Astorga because there was literally no ‘room at the Inn’! We all ended a very tiring hot day having a wonderful meal together in a local restaurant.
Tuesday, 15th May
The next day we headed out at 6.30am. All the group – apart from myself – stopped for coffee an hour later. I eventually walked on – ‘walked’ being a euphemism for climbing and descending a whole series of long and steep intervening hills until I got to the hill overlooking the ancient city of Astorga. Soon after, the others began to catch up. By now I was regretting not having had something to eat at that earlier stop, and really struggled on the long downhill to the village below, and then the long climb up into Astorga. By now I was walking with Richard who came with me to the first Farmacia (chemist) as my interpreter and then, having reached Astorga, we stopped off at a Tapas Bar and had something fairly substantial to eat. We had a quick look at the Cathedral (from outside), and were bowled over by the sight of Gaudi’s building of the Bishop’s Palace – absolutely palatial, awesome in size, and virtually dwarfing the ancient Cathedral next door. And yet, in another context and setting, it would have been quite exquisite but extravagant beyond all imagination as one person’s home and office – even that of a Bishop! Like Gaudi’s Cathedral in Barcelona, there is nothing really to compare it with. Soon after 2pm, Richard & I headed off on the trail again, catching up with Ian and Liz before we reached Murias de Rechivalho where we were to spend our third night. But there were not enough beds for all of us, so six of the youngest and fittest set off again – having been assured of beds – to the much more (we were to learn next morning!!) upmarket Albergue at Santa Catalina. Meanwhile we set about doing all our washing – the sun being a good hot-drying sun – and then sitting out in the courtyard, with our chatting being refreshed with lots of cold liquids from the bar, writing up of journals being accomplished by some, and the like. The Albergue provided us with both our meal that night, as well as breakfast in the morning – both excellent – with bed and both meals costing us 18 Euros each. And the cherry on the cake, so to speak, was that all our clothes were washed and ready for use again.
Wednesday, 16th May
The six of us were lined up outside praying for our new day at 6.30a.m. Today was to be a day of ‘climbing nearly all the way’, in order to get to the top of the first of our Mountain ranges. And every time we dropped down to a river, we knew it was lost ground that had to be made up! After El Ganzo, the climb is steadily upwards, with a final very steep climb to Rabinal del Camino. By this time I had got well ahead of the group, and met with Ian in the forward party. Having told him that one member of the party was really struggling, he went back to help. Meanwhile I had a quick meal, and then continued on the very long and steep climb up to Foncebadon (1500 metres), very near the summit of the range of mountains we were crossing.
I had also passed the rest of the advance group at Rabanal, and so was the first of the group to arrive at the Albergue at Foncebadon. I got one of the last top bunks that were available. All the rest of our group, when they arrived later that afternoon, had to sleep on rows of mattresses laid down side by side literally in the roof space! On the way up this last climb I met up with a Canadian at one of the wonderful water points/reservoirs provided. Rather than pollute the tank by literally getting into it, I filled my hat with water several times, and poured it all over me to cool off a bit – including my specs which I had overlooked! My new contact, Serge, told me about his mother and father who had cancer, and of his own marriage difficulties, and I promised to pray for his needs on the rest of the Camino. We met up again at the Albergue, and had a further long chat together. He told me that at the beginning of his Camino, he had purposely shaved off all his hair – because his mother was losing her’s through chemotherapy – and how all in the barber-shop had hugged him and blessed him when they discovered why he had done this. He was thrilled to hear how my MBT’s (Masai Barefoot Technology shoes) had given me a new lease of life, and we agreed it was like a miracle that I was now standing on the top of this first mountain range (ahead of the rest of my group!) en route to Santiago! During the rest of my journey, the two of us bumped into each other virtually every day at some point or other, and continued to share together. The next morning he told me that I was one of those who had been snoring – and when I apologised, he said, ‘No, no! Yours was very soporific snoring! Gentle and peaceful.’ What a generous French Canadian!
Thursday, 17th May
After a further hours’ climb, we reached Guz de Ferro. At the summit is a Chapel (locked) and a huge pole on a mountain of stones. Every Peregrino is encouraged to bring a stone with them from home, and lay it on the cairn – and to pray for their home community. We took a coloured front page from one of Ian’s special guides that he had given each of us, and after we had all signed it, we pinned it to the pole. The Camino then took us down quite a height before we reached Manjarin, a ruined village with a quite distinct Albergue. Our guidebook simply referred to it as “not to be recommended”. Apart from everything else, it had no running water! It’s owner, Tomas, was an eccentric self-styled Hospital Knight. But it did have a wonderful ‘sello’, or stamp, to put in our camino passport. While we were having this stamp added to our ‘passports’, someone asked where we could find the toilets. The man told us ‘they were burnt down four days ago – just use the bushes like we do.’ From here we had another further steep climb up again to a further peak. At this point we had the most phenomenal view around virtually 360 degrees. One of the most wonderful experiences of the journey up and over the mountains – apart from the depth of silence and lack of any human presence as far as the eye can see - was the awe-inspiring display of virtually every spring flower in such rich profusion, and even grander were the massive displays of heathers – with many of the mountain tops just glowing a wonderful deep red. The view down to Ponferrada and all points west – way down below us – was fantastic. Ponferrada reminded me so much of Mutare in Zimbabwe. A city in a bowl surrounded an all sides by a continuous series of mountain ranges. It just left me stunned over and over again as we descended and I kept ‘seeing Mutare below me’, with so many memories flooding back, and I could virtually pinpoint where the Swailes’ lived in the Vumba above and overlooking the city.
The steepness of the descent was awesome – with ankles, knees and hips aching from the sheer pain of continually trying to brake on a path that was nothing but masses of shale and loose stones. These paths led to two accidents. Roger was taking a photograph when he began to fall. To save his camera (his first thought), his hand took a mighty bang. He was to be in pain for the rest of the Camino. I will say more about that later. Then David, on another occasion, also had a fall and smashed his glasses. He eventually had to visit a Farmacia (Chemist) and get some reading glasses off the shelf to enable him to read. Susan also struggled with a painful right knee for much of the trip.
At El Acebo, still on the way down and very hungry, we discovered a new kind of “pie” (vast in size – about 6 or 7” square and over an inch deep) made with egg and all kinds of delicious things. Heated in a microwave by mine host, they were out of this world! Wow! I wish I had the recipe for them.
The steep descent continued. At a wonderfully picturesque village, Riego de Ambros, balanced on a tiny slice of almost level ground, the path suddenly took an unexpected and sharp turn right in between two houses….and went virtually straight down for another hour and more to a beautiful little town – Molinaseca – on the banks of the river. It was the hottest day of our journey so far. We sat in the grounds of a lovely café, had our foot-ware off in seconds, and were into the water up to our ankles or calves. The shock was profound, the water seemingly much colder than ice! Our feet, ankles and calves were now painfully numb in seconds. Then came those blissful long iced drinks with our feet soaking up the sunshine and being wonderfully restored in the sun’s hot rays. Finally, however, recognising that the day’s work was still not complete, foot-ware was replaced, bags restored to our backs, walking sticks placed in hand, and we set off on the last 8 kilometres under a blistering hot sun for Ponferrada. A very hot and exhausting two-hour walk followed. By the time I arrived, everything I was wearing was literally ringing wet.
Our fifth night was to be spent in a city with a really wonderful Albergue built by the city fathers – for which there was no charge. Just a donation. Unfortunately, despite being so wonderfully equipped in so many ways, there were no blankets or pillows! Another very cold night ahead of some of us – especially me.
One of our party could go no further than Molinaseca, so caught a taxi to Ponferrada and set about finding some more suitable boots. [The next day she travelled on to our next destination by bus to give her badly blistered feet a rest, and to obtain treatment for them during the course of that day.]
A couple of hours later, that evening, refreshed by showers, a change of clothing and some refreshing drinks you would have scarcely believed this happy, laughing bunch was the same group - now walking out of the Albergue and into the town looking for a good evening meal and entertainment – who had staggered in from Molinaseca a few hours earlier. We had drinks in a lovely city square waiting for the dinner hour to arrive at our Restaurant of choice – 8.30 pm. A wonderful meal followed, but served so slowly I began to get anxious about getting back before the doors were locked on the Albergue, because I still had to see how much dry clothing I could rustle up to try and keep me from freezing during the night before the lights went out. I had a very cold night!
Ian had ‘cheered’ us up that evening by telling us that the next day’s walk, before we tackled the next mountain range, was a relatively easy day’s walk across ‘gently undulating hills’. We would not let him off the hook for his description of a day’s walk we were to find extraordinarily exhausting!
Friday, 18th May
The beautiful old city of Ponferrada has ‘an ancient, magnificent, storybook Knights’ Templar Castle’ in process of renovation. And as we set out at 6.30 this morning, Roger was sure we wouldn’t mind a rather longer roundabout route through the city so that we could see something of this magnificent Castle high above the river running below. It was truly magnificent – what we could see of it in the early morning light. April, John & Jenny, and I found ourselves in the fast group of young walkers, and the pace in the long uphill climb through the old city and up into the new modern city, up through the Industrial area, and then further up into the hills beyond, was far too fast for us, and we were to pay dearly for it later. But we kept up with them. It was in one of the outlying towns, Columbrianos, that Richard was shocked to realise he had left his money belt, with passport inside, hanging on a hook in the shower cubicle he had used at our overnight stop. What a potential disaster! We pooled some change between us, and Richard headed towards the local High Street to find a local bus back to Ponferrada. Meanwhile Roger sent a text message back to Liz and Ian with the news, in the hopes that they might still be in the city. Meanwhile the rest of us continued, and then finally paused for a very nice breakfast in the ancient village of Fuentas Nuevas.
It was going to be another scorching hot day, and my clean new clothes were already soaking wet. Nothing to be done about it, as my other clothes from yesterday (washed before we went out for the evening last night) were still hanging out to dry off completely on the back of my pack!
We reached Cacebelos about 11, bought some supplies for a picnic lunch, had a drink in a local bar, and headed out of this ancient old town across the river Cua and then up an endlessly long two-kilometre climb…and very hot! Near the top of the hill, still running alongside the main road were a few buildings, a little green, and a fountain for drawing water. In no time at all we were lying under the trees on the cool grass in our bare feet. Lovely rolls were put together from the ingredients that had been bought, followed by fruit – the region is famous for its wine and fruit. For the rest of our walk that day we would walk past miles of vineyards, all growing on very steep slopes. With our water bottles topped up again, we headed further up into the hills in the exhausting heat of the midday sun. Although we could eventually see Villafranca Del Bierzo way off and up to the left of us, we continued to circle round the hills….Ian’s ‘gently undulating’ walk became a whole series of (in our hazy state, I think we counted at least eight) exceedingly steep hills to be climbed. They were of about the same gradient as the famous Porlock Hill in Somerset – and about as long – followed by an equally steep downhill……… then uphill again….and so on almost (seemingly) ad infinitum. At the top of each rise we expected to see Villafranca in front of us, only to be disappointed to see yet another hill at least to be climbed… When we finally rolled up to the Albergue in Villafranca we were virtually on our knees. But what a welcome sight! We found it hard to believe we were presumed to have only covered just over 15 miles that day. But what with the pace that was too fast for us at the beginning of the day – then all the steep roller-coaster hills at the end – not forgetting the extreme heat – it really did knock the stuffing out of us. But our growing fitness was beginning to tell. After a shower, washing and hanging out of clothes, and yet another drink…we felt like new again. Nearly three hours later, we were able to welcome Ian, Liz and Richard back with the group again. Ian and Liz had received Roger’s text message when they were well on their way out of Ponferrada. Liz walked all the way back to the Albergue, and found Richard’s money belt, with passport, on a hook just outside the shower cubicle – where someone had obviously moved it when they came to use the shower. What a relief. Thank you God! Somehow Ian, Liz and Richard then found each other, and set off once more for Villafranca. They, too, were somewhat exhausted at the end of their day!
This Albergue definitely deserves a longer description. I took a whole series of photographs to try and show something of what goes on in such a place. The entry hall of this ancient building was used as the Café Bar, booking office, and place for the sale of a multitude of requirements etc. That led out to a courtyard. Off the courtyard, were a series of dormitories leading off the courtyard, and all under one roof. Our Dormitory, for instance, was crammed with about 30 double bunk beds – virtually no space between them. At one end, there were two ledges on which mattresses had been placed. My top bunk bed was next to one of these, and my neighbour on the mattress was a young South Korean girl. Alongside her bed was a three foot high door leading into the rest of the eaves of the roof. Inside were four more mattresses – then a similar doorway into the next section of the roof, and yet more mattresses on the loft floor. And then to cap it all, behind the heads of our beds the roof came down to meet a ledge at the level of my top bunk. The ledge was three foot wide, and mattresses were laid end to end down the whole length of the dormitory. The latecomers who used these, had to climb up and slide on to their mattresses behind our heads – there was no space above them to allow them to turn over!!! The fire hazards were just too awful to think about. No laws seemed to govern such things in Spanish Europe! So much for European legislation. Showers and toilets – there were two sets – were communal; one with hot and cold water, the other only with cold! In the courtyard were a few benches and tables for people to sit at, and the drying area for clothes was off to one side of the dormitory block. Close alongside was a large Church, most of it very simple and great for reflection and prayer. It was built in memory of the local saint who had lived there in the Middle Ages.
The town is very old and quaint – roads all too narrow for two-way traffic. A couple of large open squares had a whole range of shops and wonderful pavement cafes. We never did get together to meet as a group for a meal that night. One group went off having decided to buy food and bring it back to the Alberge to eat so as to have an early night – but were so smitten by a pavement café/bar that they sat down there and then to eat a pilgrim meal. I was in the Church praying, and intended to join the other group (who had gone off to Mass in another Church) for a later meal. Liz, realising where I was, joined me and we then went down into the town to try and find where ‘our’ group was at Church. We couldn’t find them, but bumped into the supposed ‘shopping group’ eating their meal instead. So we got a table near them and I started my meal, with Liz deciding to wait until the others joined us! Half way through my meal, Liz got a text message asking her where she was, because the other group were already in a restaurant in another square – and they had already ordered for her! So off she went. John and Jenny from the other party had already finished their meal – the others had already left to visit a chemist to see what could be done for Richard’s very swollen right hand – and came and joined me and had their after dinner cup of coffee. Later we were to discover that the Chemist had sent Roger to the doctor, and the doctor insisted he had to go to Hospital to have xrays done and receive attention. It now being late – and realising the Albergue would be locked up when they got back - one of the staff took pity on Roger and showed them where they could get in under the fence when they did return! So a taxi took Roger and minder virtually all the way to Ponferrada, where we had started the day! There, two broken bones were noted, and Roger’s lower right arm and hand put in plaster. They arrived back at the Albergue at about 2am, crawled in under the fence, and so to bed.
Saturday, 19th May
Today we were to climb to the top of the second range of mountains. Ian had arranged for all our bags to be carried by a vehicle to O Cebreiro – our planned stop for the night close to the top of the mountains. Only Edward, our very fit and (recently) regular rugby player – who was also preparing to run a marathon when he got back to England – decided to carry his bag all the way. It was so heavy I could barely lift it off the ground, let alone try and get it up on my back! Only recently Edward had been seriously injured at rugby with a broken bone in his neck, and had to have major surgery. He was still not able to turn his head more than about 15 degrees in each direction – but nothing was going to stop him from undertaking the Camino, or prepare for a marathon when he got home. And then, because he would not be allowed to play rugby again, he had been taking examinations so that he could at least referee rugby matches in the future. Edward was a Roman Catholic, and a lawyer by profession. He was always a laugh a minute at every gathering. He had brought all his Spanish books with him (partly why his bag was so heavy), and was determined to master the language by the end of our trip. He was that sort of a guy with an amazing sense of humour. It was always a great encouragement to have him around, and he always showed such interest in everyone around him. Despite carrying this enormous bag – and we were without bags – he was still in the leading group to reach our destination in the late afternoon.
And what a day it was…twenty miles of uphill work, with the last four miles very steep indeed. After our midmorning break for a meal, we all began to lose touch with one another, with each person or group of persons simply travelling at the speed that they could manage. I met up with the South Korean girl twice in the early part of the day – the one who slept on the platform near my bed. She had recently completed a Social Welfare degree, and was now doing something she had longed to do ever since she had become a Christian – to walk the Camino to Santiago. She lived near Seoul, and would be returning there to start work. What I found really humorous was the number of ardent young men who would race past people like myself and then, because they kept stopping for refreshment, would have to find themselves having to pass me yet again. One guy did this three times to me today, and then the 4th time we met, he was clearly puffed out having just completed the steepest part of the climb – and very near the summit – only to find me just finishing my drink at the local bar. He clearly could not believe his eyes that I had got there before him! The steepest part of the climb started at Las Herrerias – and was in two parts. The first took one up to La Faba. Somehow I missed the turn on the trail, and took the very much longer route that was marked for cyclists. It too was so steep that I virtually kept up with a bunch of cyclists most of the way – with all of us continually stepping under fountains of water flowing downhill on to the roadside – and helping us to cool off. I reached La Faba just as our young fast group were finishing their drinks. Then came the shock – an even more strenuous climb up a steep path over shale and loose rocks. But very soon all sense of direction and distance was lost as I walked into dense cloud, which took me the rest of the way to O Cebreiro – a tiny village nestled against the very top of the range.
The Albergue was still in the process of being rebuilt, but accommodation was provided in a couple of ‘dormitory’ Portacabins, and two others equipped with showers and toilets – really gruesome inside. There were not enough beds for all of us, so all those who arrived later were found accommodation at Hospital de Condesa. Although it was very late in the day, Ian & Liz walked on to it, while the others had a taxi arranged for them to take them down.
Those of us who were left, spent the evening in the local bar/pub – the warmest place, and to which our packs had been delivered earlier in the day. It also provided a very good meal. Because one set of clothing was dripping wet from the day’s climb, I only had one set to try and keep me warm overnight – again no blankets supplied. I decided to have a Martini to warm me up. On asking for one, the grandmother who was helping her daughter got down a large glass and just started pouring. When I realised the glass was already half full, I asked her to stop and top it up with a lemon drink. She poured in two drops and stopped! She was amazed that I wanted it diluted further. It still cost less than a tot of Martini in England. Later in the evening I decided to have another to warm me up for the night. This time the daughter poured it – using just the same quantities! We then had to walk back through dense mist to our portacabin. I did sleep better despite the cold.
Sunday, 20th May
I was the first up in the morning and got a hot shower – bliss. Outside the cloud was right down over us – and it was wet! We had some difficulty finding our way out of the village – and made a couple of false starts in different directions before we were eventually able to find the trail. For much of the morning we remained in the clouds – sometimes so dense one could not see a person ten feet ahead. Although we dropped down quite a bit to start, we had one further extremely steep climb before the descent proper started. A couple of hours later we reached the Albergue where the others had stayed. Most of them were still there. The rest of our group joined them for breakfast. I decided to carry on rather than get too cold – my clothes were already wet through with perspiration – and yesterday’s wet clothes were pinned to the back of my pack but getting no drier under the pack’s waterproof covering. What followed was a very steep and rapid descent all the way down to Triacastela, which I reached just before 1pm. The local bar was cooking pasta for lunch. It was absolutely delicious, and wonderfully filling. Within an hour or two, most of the others had joined us. Two decided to stay there for the night. The rest of us decided to continue on to Samos – a slightly longer alternative route to Sarria – but one which would give us the chance of seeing a vast Benedictine Monastery in Samos where we intended to spend the night.
Most of this part of the walk was through wonderful woods with a strongly running river down below us, occasionally with some lovely waterfalls. For the last part of this walk, Ian and I then followed the road and had a good and profitable (?) time putting the Church of England (and Peterborough Diocese especially) to rights.
As virtually everything I had was now wet, I decided to pay for a habitaceones above the local bar. Actually a very nice double bedroom en suite. It had radiators in both the bedroom and bathroom. So I turned them up to maximum and virtually dried the set of clothing from yesterday while I showered and re sorted everything in my bag. The clothes from today had been thoroughly washed in the shower, and they now took the place of the others on the heaters. The other nine in our party were staying in the Albergue – part of the Benedictine Monastery – immediately across the road from me. We all met in the bar where I was staying for drinks, and then went on a tour of the immense Monastery – all conducted in Spanish!! The place was inhabited by less than a dozen monks, and clearly large parts of the monastery were not in use!!
We then returned to my pub, where Liz had previously booked a table for the eleven of our group. This was a special occasion – Ian’s 55th Birthday. At the end of the meal, instead of individual puddings, a large Santiago Flan was brought in with candles burning and we all sang happy birthday – with the rest of the pilgrims in the Dining Room joining in lustily, and Ian trying to hide under his jacket! A wonderful evening had by all.
When I returned to my room, the clothes on the heaters had dried. So I washed the other set properly, and hung them over the radiators to dry overnight. I had generously offered to share my vast double bed with anyone else who wanted these special facilities – but perhaps with hindsight it was a good thing no one took up the offer as the bed and mattress were so ancient that I spent the night in the trough in the middle of the bed! I was to hear later that all those at the Albergue had had a terrible night – not only cold, but everyone was being bitten!!!
Monday, 21st May
They had a fairly sleepless night! They were so glad to get out of the place, they were on their way soon after 6am. I, however, slept on blissfully ‘til 8am, dressed in nice clean (warm) clothes and had a leisurely breakfast downstairs. Then I packed the other nice clean clothes, and finally hit the road soon after 9am. As I did, I met two of our ladies who had decided to travel to Sarria by bus – but missed it - and had come back to the bar to order a taxi. This was to be our ‘rest’ day with the shortest of walks - 13kms. Apart from a few steep hills, it was a lovely walk largely following a river valley – very beautiful. The only downside was that it rained gently most of the way! But I thoroughly enjoyed the walk on my own. Just before Sarria, where my path met the direct route from Triacastela to Sarria, I saw Richard and Ursula (who had stayed at Triacastela the previous night) just ahead of me. Ursula was a lass from Germany who had spent a lot of time with our group for several days now – and she and Richard were hitting it off well. So I caught up with them and another young London guy travelling with them, and we walked into Sarria together and helped each other find somewhere to stay for the night. I got the last bed in a privately owned Auberge in a dormitory full of a large French group. Very modern building, excellent facilities – but still no blankets. But the beds did have a thing rather like a very thin duvet to cover and protect the mattress. It gave me a little more protection that night. But here we had a whole half day to look around this ancient city, buy additional groceries to put in our bags to keep us going on what would be a very long haul the next day. My wet clothes of the day dried out on the radiator in our dormitory. We were able to have both lunch and dinner together in different restaurants – all on the same day. We agreed we needed an early start the next day if we were to get as far as Hospital de la Cruz!
Tuesday, 22nd May
I woke with a start, realising it was full daylight outside. It was just after 7.30am and clearly no one in this French group had considered getting up so early! The rest of my group had already been an hour on the road! By 8am I was on my way out of the city – a day of interminably long climbs, many very steep, followed by quick descents into the next valley to cross a river, then up again. I soon caught up, and overtook Richard and Ursula when they stopped at a local bar for breakfast. I passed Linda doctoring her feet a few miles on, and then at lunch time caught up with April, John & Jenny as they turned off the path for a picnic – and I joined them. At this stage we were looking down on Portomarin and the large reservoir around it. They were trying to make up their minds whether or not they would stay at Portomarin that night. I had already decided I was determined to make it as far as Hospital de la Cruz. So I said farewell and moved on. From Portomarin onwards was one of the toughest stretches for me – endlessly long uphill climbs, most of them just too steep to get any kind of rhythm going. I was more than glad to catch up with Liz and Ian at Toxibo – and we could now encourage one another along. It was very hot, and water points few and far between. Not surprisingly all my clothes were sodden with perspiration, and it sure was hot.
We finally made it – 36 kms later - to Hospital de la Cruz about 4pm, only to find that the Albergue had clearly been rebuilt, but was not yet open for business. Fortunately we went back the few yards to the Bar el Labrador that we had just passed, and they had a few vacancies – some at 8 Euros a night, the rest at 30 Euros a night. I got the last 8 euro one – which was a tiny room below ground with two double-bunk beds (no windows) and quite a reasonable shower/toilet next door. Liz and Ian had to put up with a 30 Euro suite! After showering and washing my clothes and hanging them out to dry, I went upstairs to find a cool drink. Eventually I started chatting with Louisa, a young lady from Denmark. She had done anthropology at University, and had been on a number of visits to South America working with the under privileged. She was very excited when I told her about the Kuhla Sizwe programme Peter was operating with ostriches and chickens in Zimbabwe, South Africa and Mozambique. I promised to let her have more details of the programme when I returned home, and she asked if she could be put in touch with Peter. I said I was sure that would be possible.
Ian and Liz arrived in the midst of this, and after drinks, we all agreed to share the Pilgrim Menu together. The rest of our group? We later discovered the four faster ones were just ahead of us; April, John & Jenny had actually got as far as Gonzar – three kms short of where we were - and Richard, Ursula and Linda had stopped at Portomarin. My most embarrassing moment - later the next day – was when I discovered that my meal had not been paid for. (I had presumed, because no one asked me for it, that Ian or Liz had paid for me — as we often did on such occasions - and then we would square up with one another the next day). Later in the trip, when I met up with her again, I asked Louisa to write an apologetic note for me in Spanish, in which I enclosed a 10 Euro note and we posted it off to Bar el Labrador!
Wednesday, 23rd May
Soon after 6.30am, Liz, Ian & I were on our way again – this time determined to make it as far as Melide, about 30 kms. We stopped at Ventas de Naron for our breakfast (toast, mermelade (jam!) and fresh orange juice). At mid morning, just as we were coming in to Palas de Rei (The King’s Palace!), there was a really super looking Albergue, with a very fine restaurant attached and many other facilities. We stopped for refreshments. Just as we were about to finish, Louisa walked in, and shared a drink with us. Louisa asked if we would mind her going ahead, because she preferred to walk much faster. But somehow or other we got ahead of her soon after leaving Palas de Rei. She was to arrive in our Dormitory at Melide about an hour after us! But by the time we got to Melide, Liz and I were on our last legs – and still had nearly 2 kms to go. Fortunately I remembered that I had some cheese squares in my bag, and that gave us a slight boost. All I wanted to do as we reached the town was to stop and get a meal – but Ian insisted we must get a place in the Albergue first. I didn’t think I could take another step – but half an hour later we were booked in. Then we went back into town to get a meal. After Ian and Liz left me to go window shopping, I realised that not only were the clothes I was wearing soaked through, but the one’s I had washed the previous night were also not dry……and yet again, this Albergue did not supply a blanket. I would have nothing to keep me warm that night So on the way back to the Albergue I found an upmarket habataceones which had just one room left at 30 Euros. I took it, and went and fetched my gear from the Albergue. Then I discovered the heaters didn’t work. Somehow I explained to the owner that I was freezing cold, and could they put the heaters on in my room. They finally understood, and I immediately set out to dry yesterday’s washing, while I washed the clothes I was in. Fortunately, by supper time, the first set was dry.
When I went downstairs, I discovered that Roger and Susan had also taken rooms in the same place. All the group in Melide came to our upmarket restaurant for a shared meal together. It was so proper, that when I asked for a banana for my sweet, it arrived on a plate with a miniature set of knife and fork to eat it with. But the pilgrim meal still only cost 10 euros inclusive of wine and bottled water!
I had set my sights on making it to Arca by the next night – giving me 42kms to cover in the day. By the time I went to bed, all my clothes were dry, and I had virtually everything packed for an early start.
Thursday 24th May
I woke soon after 5am and left my building at about 5.45 – but it was too dark for me to find the trail signs. So I went along to the Albergue and sat on the bench outside the front door. At 6am a group of three Germans – well-known for their early starts – came out. They had a large and powerful torch, so I set off with them and remained with them for the next half hour until it was light enough to see by. Gradually I got ahead of them. The road was like a switchback – steep up and then steep down – over and over again. Within an hour my freshly washed and dried clothes were ringing wet. But at least I knew I had another dry set for the final walk into Santiago the next day! I made good time (15kms) to Arzua, and had a very nice breakfast at a restaurant on the way into the town. My guidebook, clearly expecting Arzua to Arca would be a day’s walk described it as “the longest day and rather up and down”. They could say that again – and I had already done 15 kms. I got to Calzada in time for an early lunch – with calves, ankles, feet and hips really painful. I decided what was needed was a good lunch and a long rest to allow my body to recover before the final stretch. I had been there nearly half an hour when our ‘fast young group of four’ (Richard, Edward, David and Susan) arrived. They watched me eating, but decided that all they wanted was a beer. They said that their target was Alto de Santo Irene, 3 kms short of Arca. As we were talking, Loiusa walked in and joined us. Shortly afterwards, the four were off again. We were to learn later that they regretted not having eaten something – because soon there was nowhere else to stop. They found that there were no Albergues operating in Brea or Alto de Santo Irene and by this time were dead on their feet. They actually got into Arca after us and stayed at a Pensione. We must have passed them while they were looking for places to stay at Brea and Alto de Santo Irene!
Meanwhile Louisa also decided to have a proper meal, and I left her there knowing that she would walk much faster than me, and suggested she pick me up and carry me into Arca when I was likely to be dead on my feet! She finally caught me up about 6 kms from Arca, and we were able to encourage one another along as we became more and more exhausted. We finally booked into the Arca Auberge soon after 3.30pm. Again, no blankets. Louisa’s shock was that there were no curtains on the shower cubicles, nor any way of hanging anything in front. Having met up with my Canadian friend Serge again, we nobly offered to stand outside her shower to protect her from the gaze of the idle mob! Still not satisfied, somehow or other she found a shower elsewhere in the building that did provide some privacy!
At 6pm Liz and Ian arrived, also totally shattered. We fed them on wine and olives (not my choice), and then encouraged them to come out and share a meal with us further up the road. The five of us had a great meal together – but one that also caused me great embarrassment. A young Spanish waitress kept coming past our table and putting her arm on my shoulder. When we came to the sweet course, we were told we could also choose anything from the bakery next door. Liz and I went to choose, and the girl obviously took enormous delight in getting me out there, but I managed to keep Liz between us. Later she came back and asked me to come to the bakery again. When I said I had had more than sufficient to eat, she made a long impassioned speech to me with an arm draped round my shoulder. When we asked Louisa later what the girl had been saying, she said she couldn’t possibly repeat it all. Needless to say there were lots of ‘blown’ kisses flying my way from behind the bar as we left – with everyone in fits of laughter. And so back to the Albergue to a very cold bed with no blanket.
Friday, 25th May
Under 25kms to go to the Camino journey’s end at the Cathedral of Santiago de Compostela! I was up, ready and waiting at 6am, but my two companions – the three of us (Serge, Louisa & I) had decided to complete this stretch together – overslept slightly, but were on our way about 6.45am. I was so grateful for their support and encouragement. The long, long climb to Monte del Grozo I found very tiring indeed after yesterday’s marathon effort. Almost all 16 kms seemed to be uphill with the occasional short down slope in between. We had a good breakfast stop at Labacolla – where Liz and Ian arrived shortly after us. They had already decided that they were only going to go as far as Monte del Grozo that day, and then wait for all the rest to catch up tomorrow. Meanwhile we pushed on. At San Marcos we were tricked off the trail by a sign that advertised a good bar just 200 metres off the trail. It turned out to be considerably more than that. But at least we got another drink, and something to eat. My left heal was hurting me a lot – a day later I discovered a blood blister, and the only one I was to get on the whole journey, praise the Lord!
Having finally reached Monte del Grozo, we started heading down to the modern city of Santiago that we could see below us. But once in the city, the road seemed to lead ever upward again, over a hill, then down before heading up again to the next rise – with the old city just coming into sight. Thinking we were virtually there, we then saw a small sign on a lamppost – 2.6kms to the Cathedral. What a severe let down. Entering the old city on very narrow pavements, Louisa and I linked arms and decided no one was going to make us get off the pavement, and kept each other going all the way to the Cathedral doors. I realised as we walked along together that there was something significant in our linking up together. As I said to her, our combined birthdays equalled exactly one hundred, and that we were about to enter the Cathedral at the end of a Camino offering to God our 100 years’ of shared experiences as we looked to Him for what He had in store for us in our separate journeys in the future. As we entered – right on 12 midday – there was much hugging and kissing between the three of us at having accomplished this section of our pilgrimage together. The Pilgrim daily mass was just beginning, and they were reading out the numbers of people who had arrived from each of so many different countries from around the world in the previous 24 hours. There were no seats available. I couldn’t stand much longer, so slumped down on the ice-cold floor in my very wet clothes, and only got up when Louisa, Serge and I went forward to receive Communion.
After the service the three of us did all the things pilgrims are expected to do. We went up behind the high altar, and climbed the steps to hug St. James, then down into the Crypt to see the gold box that is presumed to contain his bones, then out to the front of the Cathedral to have our photographs taken. The next urgent stop was a satisfying meal, followed by a visit to the Pilgrim office to get our pilgrim passports verified, and so issued with our certificates for completing the requirements of a Camino.
I had only booked in at a hostal/hotel above a bar for Saturday and Sunday night. So not wanting to leave this guy who spoke no Spanish to sort himself out, Louisa and Serge took me to where I was to stay on Saturday night. They had no rooms available for Friday, but with Louisa’s help, they phoned round similar establishments, but could only find one room for 40 Euros. I agreed to take that, and my minders took me to the place, ensured that I got the room, and left me safely settled in it. What a team we had made, and they kept saying that we couldn’t have had a nicer group to end the pilgrimage. They then moved on to hotels they had previously booked.. We were all to meet briefly again in the Cathedral the next day after the pilgrim mass for some fond farewells.
The ‘four faster walkers’ overslept that morning, and only arrived at the Cathedral a couple of hours after us. Apparently there used to be a custom that crowned as ‘king’ the first person of a group to either see or reach the Cathedral first. So I was duly acclaimed. The other seven in our party arrived over a period of time the next day.
After Louisa and Serge had left, I showered, and then washed as much of my clothing as possible. Then I went out and visited a supermarket I had seen on the way in, and bought enough food to provide myself with supper for that evening, and for my breakfasts and lunches until Monday morning.
I then returned to my hotel and had that supper in solitary state. Thinking I would have an early night, I was in bed by eight. By ten I still couldn’t sleep – too excited perhaps? – so got up, got dressed again and went down to the bar next door and had a drink to watch the world go by. And what a surprise that was. Young Mum’s and grannies coming in with children and having ice creams, other families sitting around, chatting and watching the TV; and a never ending stream of people passing the window clearly still on their way home, or going out to eat. The night was clearly still young. My bar was clearly a family type one, and they began to shut up soon after 11 – so I too called it a day. The only failure of the evening was that despite constant trying, the ‘phone system just did not connect with the UK, and so was unable to let Jill know I had arrived. It was only later I discovered it wouldn’t have mattered anyway, as Jill was out having dinner with Heather and Malcolm.
Saturday 26th May
It was lovely to lie in on Saturday morning. No more regimented starts at 6.30….no more daily treks to be undertaken on foot. All had been accomplished at midday yesterday. I had a quiet breakfast in my room, packed up my gear and finally wandered off to the Suso Hotel (only a stone’s throw from the Cathedral in the midst of a vast array of ‘tourist-type’ shops) I had booked for Saturday and Sunday night. They were able to give me my key when I arrived soon after 10.30am. My room was the tiniest en suite single bedroom I had ever seen. The bed, no more than 6ft long was tight against the walls at each end. The passage between the bed on one side, and small wardrobe and door on the other was just under 3ft. Just alongside the foot of the bed was access to the tiniest area possible that included a mini shower, toilet and wash basin – and all of it absolutely immaculate. And it cost me 20 euros a night. The staff in the bar below were all so nice and helpful. And although the bar was shut to the public on Sunday, we were always able to get whatever we wanted to eat and drink through a side entrance into the bar where one or two of the staff were available when needed.
At 11.30 I wandered into the Cathedral to get a seat for the Pilgrim service. There great re-unions took place with all the others who had arrived, together with the chance for a further moving farewell with Serge and Louisa who would soon be going home to Canada and Denmark respectively.
Afterwards I went shopping and bought myself a few small mementoes and a T Shirt as a reminder of the Camino and, most importantly, a beautiful shell pendant with ear rings to match for Jill – her one special request after admiring the one Ian had brought home for Liz on a previous occasion. (The shell is the sign associated with St James and the Camino to Santiago de Compostela).
That evening eleven of our party met for dinner together – another wonderful Pilgrim Menu with the usual three courses inclusive of wine and bottled water. No one had been able to make contact with Richard, although it was known he had arrived in the city.
Sunday, 27th May PENTECOST SUNDAY
Liz had found a public phone in the street that did work, so I phoned Jill to tell her where I was. Then I went into the Cathedral just before 10am and found David and Edward, and we sat in a pew together. The service appeared to start with something that we presumed was Mattins (?), and then followed the most wonderful procession – with men carrying a large head and shoulders’ statue of St James in a glass case, with quite beautiful unaccompanied antiphonal music lad by a Cantor (an elderly cleric with the most wonderful voice) and a choir responding from the galleries around the Cathedral. Then interspersed with that, and as part of the procession, were a group of musicians blowing trumpets, French Horns and all manner of instruments as a sort of triumphal interlude. The only thing that we all missed was the use of the giant thurible with incense – which takes half a dozen men to swing from one side of the Cathedral to the other – but which was apparently being repaired. We had so looked forward to that – seemingly so appropriate for Pentecost when we remember that on the first Pentecost tongues of fire were seen to descend on all those gathered in the Upper Room as they were filled with the Holy Spirit. When that ceremony drew to a close, we then had the Pentecost Communion service. The three of us went up for Communion – and like most others who did so – found our seats taken by others by the time we got back!!! So now we had to stand for the rest of the service! And all round us were the latest lot of exhausted pilgrims who had just walked in.
I went back to the Suso Hotel to have my lunch in my room, and then spent the afternoon exploring the multitude of tiny alleyways, streets, shops, bazaars, the ancient University and so on. At 7pm we met on the steps outside the cathedral, and went for a drink until all our folk arrived. Then followed another evening together with a final Pilgrim Menu shared together. A wonderful evening and a fitting closure to this part of our journey together. And how much we had packed into that fortnight together. It seemed at times as if we had….well, the only way to explain it was that when we talked about things that had happened 24 hours before, it seemed more like that was at least three or four days ago….. So much was packed into all that walking…. and such wonderful memories…and deep friendships….and above all, a new sense of God’s purposes and involvement in our lives.
Monday, 28th May
10.30 saw us all at the Airport in good time to catch our flight back to Stansted at 11.30am. Two hours later, at 12.30 GMT, we duly landed. Susan was met by Jamie and headed home after farewells with all, as did Richard with his family. The rest of us bought sandwiches and drinks for our drive home, and found our Minibus duly waiting for us. An incident-free drive home saw us all back in Northampton – with tea and cakes supplied at the Vicarage – lots more farewells, and eventual drive home for each and everyone. It was so good to be back. Some of us might not want to do that again – but it was the most wonderful shared experience one could ever wish to have. Many of us achieved physical goals we would never have thought possible. We all ended up many times fitter than when we started. And it definitely left pointers for us down the road for our future and continued pilgrimage. For that, in a nutshell, is what this earthly life is all about – a walk with Christ as we discover more and more of His purposes for us until we finally enter into our eternal destiny with Him.
[Aged 71 years and four months at half way stage!]